MUSCATINE — A Muscatine resident is headed to Memphis, Tennessee, next week to compete against more than 200 international blues bands.
In September, Andrew Durham, a manufacturing engineer at HON in Muscatine, won the Iowa Blues Challenge in Des Moines with the group, the Avey/Grouws Band. And, next Wednesday, they will take on the top blues bands in the world over a three-day competition.
While band leader Chris Avey, a Davenport-based guitarist and singer, has made it to the International Blues Challenge five times in the past, it will be the first time for Durham, 25, who plays saxophone and harmonica.
"I've actually gone down to watch the International Blues Challenge years before, and I saw what a good time it was, and kind of made it a goal," Durham said. "So now I'm kind of fulfilling that goal and I'm super excited."
The blues was the first kind of music Durham ever heard as a child, he said, listening to his dad's records and hearing him perform as a blues singer and harmonica player.
"So that sound is really close to me," he said. "I really like it as a celebration of American music."
Throughout high school and college, Durham experimented with jazz and played in rock and other bands. But when he moved to Muscatine a few years ago for work and discovered the Quad-Cities music scene, everything led him back to blues.
"I met a lot of people at Muddy Waters, which isn't there anymore, but was in Bettendorf and had a blues jam every Thursday," he said. "I heard about that and made it a point to start making appearances and that's when it all started. I was very pleased with how happy everyone was to invite new people in and how supportive they were. I knew I found the right spot."
At Muddy Waters, Durham also met Avey, and eventually, singer Jeni Grouws.
"Chris started developing a relationship with Jeni and they kind of kicked it off," he said. "They said let's put a band behind us and asked me if I could be part of the larger band ... and the whole band is a pleasure to work with. We kind of just get each other."
Using saxophone lines and jazz patterns, Durham plays with a unique intensity, reminiscent of traditional Chicago blues artists, such as Little Walter and Paul Butterfield.
"Andrew is just good at all of it," Avey said. "He's killer on saxophone and just as good on harmonica. And he actually played slide guitar on the record."
While Avey is a seasoned musician at the International Blues Challenge, he said being able to see Durham and Jeni Grouws compete for the first time is the main reason he is participating.
"That was kind of the selling point to do it again because they need the experience and Jeni is such a fabulous singer, the more people that see her the better," Avey said. "It's really cool because there's not a lot of weak links in the band. Everybody does their job well."
The other band members competing next week are Bryan West on drums and Randy Leasman on bass, Avey said.
For Durham, participating in the International Blues Challenge is a way of preserving and celebrating the history of blues music in the Quad-Cities area, as well as honoring his father's love of the genre.
"It's a universal language, in my opinion," Durham said. "Everyone has their own things that get them down. Blues is kind of a way to, not necessarily be sad about it, but play on that sadness that might come through daily life."
The final rounds of the International Blues Challenge will take place on Friday.