It wasn't about winning, it was about being around the blues scene and the welcoming environment on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee — again.
Rae Gordon brought her third band to the International Blues Challenge, and she and the Backseat Drivers placed as a runner-up in the finals, one of three bands still playing after thousands tried to make the competition and fewer than 300 made the trip to Memphis.
Translation: It was a pretty good showing for Gordon, a Southern California native who has called Oregon City home for 22 years, and her band.
"It was just such an incredible experience," Gordon says. "And it's a camaraderie — they foster that."
You play songs, and then you help the next band set up. You lend an instrument to the competitor. You share in the joy and congratulations for others.
"Contests are contests, but the networking and just the people you meet ... it's like a big family," Gordon adds.
Gordon and the Backseat Drivers played at the B.B. King's Blues Club for the first three nights, and advanced to the finals as the venue's representative.
The semifinals entailed the band playing for 30 minutes, and they played five originals and one cover, "I've Got Dreams to Remember" by Otis Redding. Then it was announced that Gordon and the Backseat Drivers had made the finals.
"It was incredible, but mixed emotion," Gordon says. "There was a band out of L.A. that I had met, and it was a bummer — 'He can't go on, too?' Everybody was in it together. You get excited, but you also get bummed out."
The finals were held at the famous Orpheum Theater.
Gordon and her band played for 20 minutes, doing some originals — "Find Me When the Sun Goes Down" and "Swing Me" — as well as "I've Got Dreams to Remember" again and Bing Crosby's "Mississippi Mud."
Gordon recalls watching Buddy Guy at the Roseland Theater. He sang "I've Got Dreams to Remember," and it stuck in her mind.
"I hadn't been moved by somebody's rendition of that song for years," she says. "I played it for the first time a year ago, and it's such an emotional, gut-wrenching song."
In the end, Canadian blues songstress Dawn Tyler Watson claimed the top prize. Souliz featuring Sugar and Spice from Tampa, Florida, also were in the finals and finished second, just ahead of Rae Gordon and the Backseat Drivers, the only band in the finals from west of the Rocky Mountains. All three were woman-led bands.
"(Watson) had this great balance of performing to the audience, and had a lot of interaction with her band," Gordon says. "I did, too, but not in a big way. She had a polished show.
"That band has been touring for years. We've been together for seven months."
The Backseat Drivers are Ed Pierce (drums), Pat McDougall (keys), Kivett Bednar (guitar), Scott Franklin (saxophone), Allan Kalik (trumpet) and Al Hooton (bass). Gordon says that Hooton's wife, Deidre DeMier, and Kalik's wife, Elizabeth Kalik, helped mightily with logistics. And, Gordon says, the band couldn't have made Memphis without generous donations.
Gordon had been to the International Blues Challenge two other times with other band members. She and the Backseat Drivers were the only Portland-area band represented, as the winner of the Cascade Blues Association local competition, "Journey to Memphis," at the 2016 Waterfront Blues Festival. Timothy James and Ryan Stadler (youth) and David Pinsky (solo/duo) also represented the Cascade Blues Association.
The Hank Shreve Band represented Eugene.
Exposure is the main goal of playing at the International Blues Challenge, but Gordon says being able to network with people from around the world is "a close second."
"There are incredible jams happening, friendships being nurtured," Gordon says. "We're all together. In this day and age, music can heal and bring people together.
"I've always said, you could totally dislike somebody, but love the same song. That's a start."
And being part of the Beale Street scene was fun. In a funny anecdote, Gordon says she was approached before the finals by a young couple with a sign saying, "Can We Pray For You?" Gordon asked them to pray for her and the band to make the finals and, lo and behold, it happened.
Gordon's band has some upcoming local gigs, including Friday, March 3, at the KINK FM Skype Lounge and Sunday, March 5, at their home base, the Trails End Saloon in Oregon City. They'll also play throughout the spring and summer, including at the Waterfront Blues Festival.
She hopes to play in Las Vegas, as she has received calls for performances in Vegas, Los Angeles and Florida.
"I'm excited to work on the first CD with this lineup," she says, "and hoping to have it ready for the blues festival."