Those spontaneous combinations that pop up at blues jams around town sometimes have lasting power.
Consider the last two winners of the annual Wichita Blues Society Blues Challenge, who appear on a double bill at the Shamrock Lounge on Friday.
Kentucky Gentlemen members Mitch King and Aaron Underwood met two years ago at one of the society’s monthly blues jams. The four members of Me and the Boyz hooked up a couple years earlier during another jam.
Their show on Friday illustrates just how varied the blues can be: the Kentucky Gentlemen play in a driving, distorted, rootsy style that’s become popular in recent years, while Me and the Boyz present a more classic lineup headed by a powerhouse female vocalist.
King said he and Underwood put together the Gentlemen with the specific goal of winning the blues challenge, which sends winners to Memphis to represent Wichita in the International Blues Challenge, the biggest of its kind in the world.
King plays guitar; Underwood bass. They also provide percussion with their feet.
“We made this crazy rig so (Underwood) can play kick drum with his right foot and snare with his left,” King said.
King, who studied engineering at Wichita State, plays a hi-hat with his right foot. He hasn’t found a use yet for his left foot, other than to “stomp around rhythmically.”
The Gentlemen is King’s first band, while Underwood is a veteran of Ophil and the Terry Quiett Band. The pair are pursuing music full time, opening for Samantha Fish at the Cotillion, playing at numerous bars around Wichita and venturing as far as Tulsa and St. Joseph, Mo., for shows. King said their sound leans toward the Chicago-style blues of Buddy Guy and Freddy King, about evenly split between covers and originals. They hope to release an EP of the latter this year (for samples, visit kygblues.com).
King said they get asked all the time if they’re actually from Kentucky. “We say we’re not from Kentucky, and we’re not gentlemen. We do like to drink a little cheap Kentucky bourbon from time to time.”
Me and the Boyz is fronted by Deanna Custard, who goes by “Lady Dee” and who appears to never have met a stranger. Joining her are Spencer Cummings on guitar, Val Williams on bass and Larry Sanders on drums.
“We play to interact with the crowd,” she said. “We just have fun, that’s what we do.”
Custard grew up singing in churches with her family, but always wanted to give secular music a shot.
“Music is just music to me,” she said.
She sang with a couple of other bands around town before putting together the current lineup. To win the blues challenge, the band members quickly penned a few originals, including “Hello Baby,” “Hello Lady” and “Never Believe.” They’ve gigged steadily around town and have recorded a seven-song CD of originals that will be released within a few weeks, called “It Will Be Done.”
“There’s a story behind that,” Custard said. “No matter what you do to me, I’m going to go on. It will be done.”
Although based in the blues, Custard said the band ventures into R&B, jazz and reggae as well.
Friday night’s show will help both bands pay expenses to Memphis. The Kentucky Gentlemen, who also went last year, were ineligible to compete in the most recent Wichita blues challenge as a result, so they traveled to Springfield, Mo., and won that city’s competition.
King said they’re hoping for better luck in Memphis this year.
“It was a big learning experience for me,” he said. “We had some equipment problems. We didn’t have a particularly good showing. We’ve kind of polished the act up.”
Custard said she “never dreamed that we were going to win this challenge. I could have fainted. All I did was cut a step like I was in church.”
In Memphis, she said, “I’m going to kick it and have some fun.”