There is that old cliché among Blues purists that says, “You have to live the Blues to play the Blues.”
Don’t tell that to the dozen or so teenagers in the Blues in the Schools Band who will take the stage next weekend at the Southgate House performing as one of 25 acts on three stages for the annual two-night Winter Blues Fest.
On the other hand, who better to sing the Blues than teenagers?
“Of course,” says Alice Slanders, a seven-year member of the BITS Band and now a University of Cincinnati student. “I was a teenager. I know all about angst and Blues and that stuff.”
For nearly 10 years the BITS Band has quietly offered area teens a chance to learn America’s true roots music and, perhaps more importantly, gain their first exposure to performing. The outfit appears at the annual summer Cincy Blues Festival and now at the four-year-old Winter Blues Fest.
“I think you do have to live some Blues to be able to sing it, but that’s not what this is about,” says John Redell, who has mentored the BITS Band for nearly a decade. “I never sit down with the kids and say, ‘OK, you have to growl a little bit here.’ We teach them the Blues formula and they can choose their own way to make it bluesier.”
Redell, a fine guitarist and singer-songwriter in his own right, started the band as an outgrowth of the Cincy Blues Society’s Blues in the Schools series, which sends musicians to schools for lectures and performances illustrating America’s indigenous music form.
“About eight years ago I realized instead of just talking about the Blues to the kids, why don’t we have them learn some of the Blues standards and perform them,” Redell says.
Over the last eight years Redell has mentored perhaps 50 young people who have passed through the band, involving a dozen high schools throughout Southwestern Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. He helps them learn a Blues 101 repertoire of a few core classics (“Sweet Home Chicago,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Big Boss Man,” “St. James Infirmary”).
“I think people who see us are a little surprised that we play as well as we do,” says 16-year-old guitarist Noah Cave, a student at Walnut Hills High School.
Slanders, majoring in theater production at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, first performed with the BITS band when she was in fifth grade. She will sort of “graduate” from the band with a performance at next week’s event.
As she can testify, one never knows what singing “Sweet Home Chicago” at age 11 before a couple thousand people at the Blues festival can lead to.
“John had given me a CD of songs to listen to and I kept singing along to ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ ” Slanders says.
“At that point my Blues education was watching The Blues Brothers (movie) a bunch of times. Then I got picked to sing it when I was 11. It actually led me to get interested in my high school choir and that led to being selected to perform at the May Festival.”
Cave, who also plays the guitar pan in the Walnut Hills Steel Drum Band, was bit by the Blues bug during one of Redell’s under-21 jam sessions where kids are encouraged to show up, plug in and play with a professional rhythm section. Cave’s guitar work led to getting his dad out of “musical retirement.” Recognizing his son’s talent, Ralph Cave, an accountant, put his band, Ralph and the Rhythm Hounds, back together as a vehicle to back his son’s searing guitar work.
“I wanted to give him an outlet for his talent,” Cave says. “There aren’t a lot of venues for a 16-year-old to play Blues guitar as well as he does. I never imagined he’d get to the level he is at. He’s now teaching me things.”
Redell acknowledges that a Blues musical education can affect teens in ways impossible to predict. So he never tries. He takes a low-key approach and has no illusions about even thinking he’s going to produce the next Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“I may be bad about not even teaching the whole Blues history,” Redell says. “My goal has always been just to expose them to this. They all have lives — sports, friends, different activities. They are teens. Things intrude. I never wanted to be another strain on their situation. We get into a room a few times a year and in a few seconds you’d think they had been getting together every week. There is a bond and a kinship when you play this kind of music.”
Redell says he never lectures about the historical underpinnings of the Blues unless kids ask. There are no Muddy Waters pop quizzes, no papers due on “The Crossroads.” Redell says just rehearsing to perform once or twice a year in front of a significant audience can carry huge lessons.
“More than anything, it gives them courage,” Redell says. “A little bit of encouragement from an adult who treats them as a peer and respects their music produces a kid that then has the courage to take a few chances.”
Redell thinks the Blues is a great entry level music form. It is relatively easy to learn, but allows for plenty of self-expression.
“It’s not that you have a whole bunch of chords to learn,” he says. “Once you map out a 12-bar Blues, it’s a matter of tempo and key and where you put those shapes.”
“It is very consistent once you got the chords down,” Cave says. “I like the Blues because you have so much space to play. And it’s music you have to feel to play. Once you get a vocabulary for it there is so much you can do.”
Redell thinks a couple of his BITS Band “graduates” are on the verge of big musical things, and says he knows of two “poised for greatness” already getting regional and national attention. Redell also has worked with teens who now have their own bands that he predicts they will make there mark in the Tristate in coming years. In his self-deprecating way, Redell won’t name names, not wanting to take any unwarranted credit for their success.
“I’m not comfortable in making any claims in regards to us being responsible for where they are now. I know they benefited from their experience with us. I feel many of the young players would have ended up at some point making a commitment to music with or without BITS. Maybe we were just the catalyst that let them know they could and should pursue it with a bit more vigor. At the least (they) will hopefully have fond memories of a time when they were on a stage in front of 1,500 cheering Blues lovers.”
Meanwhile, Redell and a core of other Cincinnati musicians will continue to appear in schools whenever asked as part of the Cincy Blues Society’s primary mission to “keep the Blues alive.”
“You go to a school and think you will enhance their music program, then you realize they don’t have a program. We are their musical touch for the year,” Redell laments. “It’s heartbreaking to realize how far some kids are removed from music and the arts.”
The Cincy Blues Society’s WINTER BLUES FEST takes place Jan. 30-31 at the Southgate House; the BITS Band plays both nights. For more info, go to cincyblues.org.