Tommy Marsh aka “Crooked Eye Tommy” needs a little help to take his blues on a road trip back east to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Challenge kicking off Jan. 22. Too bad he couldn’t cure California’s blues and take about 20 million people with him, or at least every idiot that always seems to be driving in front of me. Anyway, to pay for the trip, Tommy is hosting a benefit on Saturday at Grapes & Hops in Ventura.
And like most musicians, Tommy has lots of friends – many of them will be playing for him including, Joey and Steve Delgado of the Delgado Brothers, Shawn Jones, Ray Jaurique & the Uptown Brothers, Ian McFadyen from 50 Sticks of Dynamite, also Mikey Mo and his dad, Michael John of the Bottom Line, Nancy Lee, a country acoustic player, Orphan John & the Abandoned out of Bakersfield, and Guy Martin.
Unlike the World Series, which has little to do with anything outside the U.S., the IBC is exactly as advertised – an event that draws blues musicians from the world over. Now in its 35th year, the IBC is a serious big deal. Tommy explained why during a recent phoner.
Hey, Tommy, now’s a good time?
Yeah, it’s a great time.
So what’s the latest? Gimme the news.
Well, we’ve been busy but the thing you called about … it was a duo and a local competition in the Santa Clarita Valley. It was a Blues Society event.
They have one, too?
Yeah, and that’s how the process works. If you have a Blues Society, you can host an event and send somebody to the Blues Challenge, so that’s how people get to go.
So the Ventura Blues Society didn’t do one?
They did not this year for whatever reason.
Well then, that would account for your Santa Clarita connection.
Yeah, and we play over there a lot and we know a lot of people over there, so the whole thing was kinda natural.
So where do you play these days and how often?
We did over 100 shows this year. We played all over. We did a fall trip to the Bay Area and did five shows up there. We play a lot on the Central Coast – Morro Bay, Grover Beach and Paso Robles – and we play the Central Valley and we’re going to down in Long Beach, then Carlsbad and a couple of casino gigs down in San Bernardino.
A lot of those places are considered by some to be backwater gigs, but not really because those folks are often starved for live music and turn out with enthusiasm.
Yeah, and you know how it is around here. There’s so many great places and so many great bands. It’s just a whole different thing because in a way they’re just spoiled for talent, but when we go out of town, we’ll make several hundred dollars in tips because to them it’s a new thing. It’s different playing for people you’ve never played for.
So have you been back to the Tachi Palace in Lemoore?
You know, we did 18 months there before I moved here. It was every Friday night, but I haven’t been back since I moved here.
If you go back, you’ll have to learn some surf music. That famous finhead, 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater, has created the Lemoore Surf Ranch. They built a wave machine that cranks out endless perfect waves. They even had a surf contest there. Surf in Lemoore, who knew?
No, I didn’t know about that. … I better look that up on YouTube.
He has too much money, clearly. So is there anything you miss about the Central Valley?
You know, not really. I kinda love it over here. Most of my family has moved away, so this is my home now. My older brother and aunts and uncles are all back East, so it’s just not home anymore. We still play the Porterville Fair every year, and we always get a great response; but they say you can’t go home anymore, and that’s probably true.
Why is it that musicians have so many friends? There’s always all these benefits and fundraisers. You guys never fail to help each other out.
Oh, yeah, that’s true. I can’t speak to other genres, but the people we play with are just the coolest, giving people you’d ever meet. We’ve got Joey Delgado and his brother coming from Pasadena to play 15 or 20 minutes with us … for free. We support them; when they won the IBC a couple of years ago, we were there. My brother and I hung out with them during the whole thing.
So this will be the 35th International Blues Challenge. What’s it all about? What are the rules?
So, the rules are pretty simple: blues content is the main thing they score on, but in a solo/duo group, you can have two people. You can (use) electric or acoustic. However you want to do it. I’m actually going to be playing my acoustic mostly, and I’m playing with Gil Julio, an amazing bass player who plays around town. He’s a young cat.
So how much time do you get?
It kinda varies depending upon which level of competition you’re in. It’s a 25-minute set for the first two nights, and then it’s a 30-minute set in the semifinals and then in the finals, you only get 15 minutes.
So how many acts are going to perform?
There will be over 230 groups from all over the world – from, I believe, 26 countries. So, yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I’ve been the last few years just as a spectator, and I go because it’s a great place to network, know what I mean? There’s Polish bands that come. There’s a Japanese band.
Hey, a few months back, I got a surf music album from Italy. Who knew?
Yeah, right, so it’s quite a spectacle. Plus it’s on Beale Street, you know, and there’s just so much energy in that alone. It’s a real lovefest, and I’m just stoked to be a part of it.
So what happens if you win? Will you have someone answer the phone for you?
(Laughs) No, I don’t think so. I’ll be answering the phone for some time to come. There are some nice prizes. If you actually win the competition, they’re tied in with the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. They’re the ones that put this event on, and they are tied up with a bunch of blues festivals from all over the country, so if you are lucky enough to win this event, you get five big festival performances plus they give away gear. It’s not shady at all.
The festival circuit is the e-ticket for a blues dude.
Yeah, of course.
So how did you get the blues back in the day?
Well, I was 10 or 11 and my older brother brought home a couple of albums. One of them was Muddy Waters’ “Hard Again,” which you know, is the essential Muddy Waters, and then one of Johnny Winter’s albums. We played them over and over, and just stared at the album covers for hours. That’s just the way it was.
What’s the best and worst thing about your night job?
You know, I have a day job, and it’s the most awesome stress reliever. It’s just a release. It’s great being in front of people sharing our music, but me, it’s just the thing that keeps me calm. The worst thing is that as a band leader, I put a tremendous amount of energy into this for the tiny amount of money I get out of it, so it’s a good thing I’m not doing it for the money because I would’ve quit a long time ago.
OK, Tommy, hope you win, and send me a cool picture?
Bill Locey’s picks
If I had a faster car, a richer girlfriend or even one with a job, here’s where I’ll be lurking in the back this week:
Hubcap Stealers at Deer Lodge in Meiners Oaks (Jan. 4)Teresa Russell & Tom Buenger at Bottle & Pint in Newbury Park (Jan. 5)Robert LaSalle at Deer Lodge (Jan. 5)Teresa & Pat Russell at Waterside in Oxnard (Jan. 6)Old Time Country Bluegrass at Poinsettia Pavilion in Ventura (Jan. 6)TSOL, Ill Repute, Stalag 13 at Ventura Theatre (Jan. 6)Alastair Greene at Cold Spring Tavern in Santa Barbara (Jan. 6)Frank Barajas at Pirates in Oxnard (Jan. 9)Stoneflys, the Delerians at Discovery Ventura (Jan. 10)Gypsy Blues at Oak & Main in Ventura (Jan. 10)
If you go
Who: Crooked Eye Tommy Road to Memphis FundraiserWhere: Grapes & Hops, 454 E. Main St., VenturaWhen: SaturdayCost: $20Call: 805-641-0053
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