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Arts & Life

One Year Later, Kansas City Blues Challenge Winners Are Rocking

Todd Zimmer

It was almost exactly a year ago when a young band named Katy Guillen and the Girls won the Kansas City Blues Society’s annual Kansas City Blues Challenge. The victory earned them a trip to Memphis to compete with bands from all over the world in the International Blues Challenge in January.

Out of 125 bands in the quarter finals, Katy Guillen and the Girls were among nine that made it to the finals. That strong showing catapulted the band onto the Kansas City music scene. Offers came from club owners all around town. In July, the band traveled to a gig in Montreal. In November, they’re booked for a two-week tour in Sweden.

“It opened us up into this whole new world,” says Guillen. “It’s been wonderful to play different gigs, festivals, blues venues and bars and meet all of the different crowds and types of people who come out to those shows.”

Guillen and her band mates, bass player Claire Adams and drummer Stephanie Williams, had only been together for about a year when they won the Kansas City Blues Challenge. They’d known each other through other projects – Guillen also sings and plays with a blues-pop-funk band called the B’Dinas; Adams fronts an “old fashioned” indie-rock band gilded with ukulele, accordion, sax and clarinet, appropriately called Claire and the Crowded Stage. Guillen had also written and recorded an album as a duo with drummer Go Go Ray. When Ray got busy with other projects and Guillen had a chance to open for the Royal Southern Brotherhood at Knuckleheads, Adams and Williams answered the call. That show went so well, that they decided to form a band.

Urged on by a fan, Guillen entered the band in last year’s Kansas City Blues Challenge at the last minute.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “People take it very seriously, and we didn’t really know what we were getting into.” When they made it to the Kansas City finals, knowing that a trip to the international competition was on the line, they did their homework.

“We researched, and a lot of people in the blues community were filling us in on what to be prepared for. We wanted to do well and represent Kansas City to the best of our ability,” Guillen says. They timed their set, and, in an effort to secure all-important points for audience participation, they incorporated a call-and-response to “Grind,” a crowd favorite in their live shows.

“Trampled Under Foot won the International Blues Challenge, and it did great things for them,” Guillen says of the Kansas City band that brought home the honor in 2008. “It’s been a springboard for a lot of musicians.”

That’s turned out to be true for Katy and the Girls as well. But for Guillen, the success has not been overnight.

The Overland Park native started formal guitar lessons at 12 and later studied flamenco with Kansas City multi-style master Beau Bledsoe. She was accepted to the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, but changed her major to Spanish and sociology after traveling to Paraguay in 2005 with Amigos de las Americas, a community development and youth leadership non-profit. After graduating, she traveled again to South America before coming home and recommitting to music.

Besides her formal training, Guillen had also been schooled at local blues jams, which she started attending with her father when she was just 14. Her first one was at Harling’s Upstairs, with Mama Ray and the Rich Van Sant Band. John Paul Drum and Bill Dye, longtime pillars at BB’s Lawnside BBQ, were among her mentors.

“It became fairly evident pretty early on that it was like, wow, this gal has a pretty good handle on the guitar,” Drum remembers. “We were kind of taken aback at how well Katy played for such a young lady.” Particularly impressive, Drum says, were Guillen’s lead-guitar abilities. “She played around with the melody -- it told a story, it had a beginning, middle, and end.”

Dye gave Guillen tips to improve her rhythmic skills, which, Drum says, “improved mightily.” A few years later, Drum says, he told Guillen that if she didn’t start singing, she was always going to be playing behind someone like him. Soon, she brought in a song. “I believe it was ‘Matchbox,’ the old Ike Turner song. It was a little warbly the first time, but she did a good job. Next time she came back out she did that one, plus another one, better. As time progressed her voice really came into its own. It's very heartfelt,” Drum says.

“The nice thing about blues is there’s a real structure and formula to it, so it’s really easy to play with people. It’s a real communal music,” Guillen says. “What’s fun is figuring out what licks you can throw in that are going to be interesting, what are some of the dynamics with other players.”

Now, Katy Guillen and the Girls are releasing their first album, celebrating with a show on Sept. 6 at Knuckleheads. In keeping with her appreciation for the communal aspect of music-making, Guillen credits Duane Trower at Weights & Measures Soundlab for his “mad skills” engineering the record, and says her favorite song on the album is one called “Earth Angel,” which features organ and piano playing by Brent Jamison, who also contributed to "Quiver." Nicole Springer adds extra back-up vocals to "Stalling on Dreams."

As far as the next Kansas City Blues Society competition: This year’s finals are the week after Katy Guillen and the Girls release their album. They won’t be participating this year. But Guillen has advice for the finalists. “Go for it. Don’t think about it too much. Don’t cater. Tailor your set a little bit but be yourself – that’s what people want to see. They especially want to see something original, so don’t be afraid to be different because it’s not that hard.”

Katy Guillen and the Girls' album release party is Saturday, Sept. 6 at Knuckleheads Saloon, 2715 Rochester St., Kansas City, Mo., 64120, 816-483-1456.

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