Standing before a packed crowd of 2,500 at the legendary Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Chatham’s Michael Schatte took a breath and looked around.
And then he played.
“It’s remarkable. When you get on stage and play that first note, it tends to disappear,” he said of any jitters. “You are just interested in producing good music live. I was pleased the band seemed to be able to focus and just enjoy playing the music.”
When he was done the 20-minute set in the heart of blues country, applause rocked the venerable 87-year-old hall and created an indelible memory for Schatte and band mates Riley O’Connor and Randy Cassidy.
The power trio was playing in the finals of the International Blues Challenge, a culmination of four days of performing on the edge.
To become one of eight bands to play that Saturday night (Jan. 24, the band had to win competitions Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
“We learned at 2:30 Saturday morning, and we had been celebrating a bit, that we had been picked for the finals and had to perform that night,” said drummer O’Connor. “Michael still found time for us to have a Saturday morning rehearsal.”
There were 117 entrants in the International Blues Challenge, culled from an estimated 1,500 who tried to qualify for the 31st annual event held which is held at 11 venues across the city.
“We didn’t know what to expect heading down to Memphis,” said Schatte, whose band was representing the Great Lakes Blues Society by virtue of winning a competition in London late last year.
The contest draws not only some of the top blues talent but also plenty of fans and music industry notables.
“When producers like Mike Vernon (Eric Clapton, David Bowie) and (noted acoustic guitarist) Colin Linden are around, it’s impressive.”
O’Connor said one memory he won’t forget was right after the show.
“We on the way up the hotel elevator after the finals and one of the IBC judges recognized us,” he said. “She told us, ‘Pistol on Her Pillow is a f—ing great song,’ and we were all a little taken aback.”
Michael asked if she had heard the new album, she answered, “No, but I’d love to.”
“I happened to be carrying a box of CDs and I gave one to her on the spot. Networking at its finest!”
The strictly timed competition was judged according to rigorous standards of musicianship, crowd response, blues genre and originality. Many of the songs played (including Pistol on her Pillow) are original compositions.
In an interview with The Chatham Voice last year, Schatte said he was uncertain about even entering the qualifying contest.
I grew up with the blues, but we don’t have a purely blues focus,” Schatte said. “I was hesitant to make that claim and I wasn’t sure how we would be received.”
Schatte’s approach has never been to label music, a practice he calls limiting.
“Let’s just call it ‘music’ and see if we enjoy it.”
He said the band’s success reaffirms how much blues has played a role in his musical development.
“I enjoy rock, folks, Celtic, a variety of music,” he said. “But there’s no denying what people heard and that we’ve got some strong blues roots.”
Although the competition was won by Eddie Cotton of the Vicksburg Blues Society, Schatte said he’s taking a lot back with him from Memphis.
“Playing on that stage in that setting is something which will stay with me for a long time,” he said. “It’s something that just allows you to grow musically I knew blues was part of what I did but and this just reaffirms how important it is in my overall musical expression.”