GILLETTE, Wyo. — In a basement on Fairview Drive in the Westover area, a dry-erase board rests on an exercise bike with six song titles scribbled in black marker.
Blankets and tapestries cover the windows, blocking the afternoon light. On the carpeted floor, microphone stands, a Marshall stack amplifier and a five-piece drum kit sit against a back wall. Black electric cords snake through the makeshift rehearsal space, reported the Gillette News Record (http://bit.ly/2cczLnp).
Outside in the driveway, Bridger Love chugs from an Arizona Iced Tea can with one hand and holds some kind of Butterfinger sundae in the other. His long, curly hair is parted down the middle and falls just short of shoulder length.
“Welcome to our humble abode,” he says, raising his can.
Kayde Blake grabs a guitar from his truck and carries it to the basement. He wears his trucker hat backwards and a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt.
Max McGee, the bass player, wears his silver-tinted sunglasses outside and inside. True to the rock stereotype, he’s the quiet one.
Tierney Worthen wears a Def Leppard T-shirt tucked into her blue jeans. It’s her family basement that’s home to band practice.
“My mom actually loves that we practice here,” Worthen says. “We’ve played down here at 7 a.m. before. We only had three days to prepare for a gig and she was like, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ Both of my parents have been super supportive of this.”
The “this” Worthen is referring to is The Hold-Up, a band made up of four local high schoolers who have been making a name for themselves on local, state and national levels.
In August, The Hold-Up competed in Wyoming’s Blues Challenge in Laramie. They played a set of all covers, ranging from artists like the Allman Brothers Band to Robert Johnson.
After a solid 30-minute set, the band was invited to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, from Jan. 31-Feb. 4, 2017, to play alongside 250 other bands from around the world.
“I know Memphis has one of the best drum shops in the world,” Love says, taking his seat behind the set in the basement.
“I’ve driven through Tennessee once,” McGee says. “I think.”
“Yeah, we’re super excited to go,” Blake says. “At our age, how many kids can say they’ve done something like this before?”
Getting the band together
When Blake and Jaxon Becker were 12 or 13, they were waiting in line at the water slide at the Recreation Center. Blake remembers a long line and couldn’t imagine why there was such a traffic jam.
“What’s the holdup?” he asked.
Hey, he thought, if we ever start a band, that’s not a bad name for it.
Fast forward a few years and all five young musicians were in Worthen’s basement debating band names.
“We had some other ideas, but I’m pretty sure we all secretly wanted that to be our name,” Worthen says.
They drew names out of a hat. Two votes for The Hold-Up made it final.
All five kids know each other from high school and from playing with each other at Rock Band Camp, an annual week-long workshop that ends with a concert put on by the campgoers. Each band member has varying degrees of experience, but all are self-taught.
“Jaxon taught me a lot of the blues stuff that we’ve been doing,” Blake says.
“I just taught myself too,” McGee says. “I learned a lot from just watching Dan Kaufman from WHATBAND.
“I’ve taken one voice lesson,” Worthen says. “Other than that, it’s just been me.”
Worthen is the only one in the band who is in the high school jazz band.
Blake does not like playing jazz guitar.
“It’s hard to explain,” he says, fiddling around with the frets of his lefty guitar. “The chords sound weird and the solos are pretty boring. It’s basically playing all the wrong notes. It’s weird.”
He plays a sample and looks visibly bored while strumming and picking.
“You just play ugly chords like that,” he says.
Love hasn’t had any lessons either. He later says that jazz drumming is easy. He once won a “Best Drummer” award at the Groovy Jazz Festival in Colorado.
“I got a drum head that I’ll definitely never use because it’s made for brushes and not actual hitting,” Love says.
But blues is another story. The band as a collective unit doesn’t have much blues experience. Most of their playing styles come from a rock and pop punk background.
“Jaxon by far is the most blues guy out of all us,” Love says. “He’s the one who found this competition for us and actually entered us into it. So this was his idea and he has a much more bluesy background.”
“He’s one of the best slide guitarists I’ve ever seen,” Blake says.
In total, Worthen says the band has just under two hours of material, and it feels confident in playing on any given night. For the past three Saturdays, they’ve been performing around town at weekend festivals, church outings and, most notably, Gillette’s 125th Anniversary Parade.
“My mom books most of the gigs,” McGee says. “Sometimes we don’t even know how we got shows, we just practice and show up.”
“We try to practice twice a week,” Blake says. “We all just love playing and all our styles mesh pretty well together.”
The band eases into its cover of “House of the Rising Sun,” made famous by Dave Van Ronk, then Nina Simone, then Bob Dylan and then The Animals.
And then, The Hold-Up?
The contest’s origin
The first International Blues Contest took place in 1984. It started as a local festival, just another excuse to celebrate blues music in a city where the rhythm and blues roots delve deep.
The origins of the challenge are sparse. A few clubs on historic Beale Street participated and the crowd was mostly made up of local residents and casual fans of blues.
Now, the event attracts more than 6,000 fans from around the world, fills 22 venues in the city and is a staple event not only for Tennessee and Memphis, but for music everywhere.
“What I always tell people, especially young musicians who come down here, is that it’s a perfect opportunity to network and meet people in the business,” said Stephen Whitney, membership and production manager for The Blues Foundation. “What used to be a niche event for people in the southeast has turned into an international showcase for blues.”
Whitney said that while walking up and down Beale Street, anyone can run into a top executive at a record label or premier artist of the genre.
“Everyone is there to play first and foremost,” Whitney said. “But the interaction that happens in between, the musicians hanging out with each other, the executives networking, artists mingling, that’s what makes this such a great event.”
As of early September, the Challenge has pre-sold somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 tickets for the weeklong event. Whitney hopes that number will increase and stay on a positive trend.
“We’ve been getting bigger every year,” he said. “Our goal is to keep growing and one day get those ticket sales up to 8,000.”
As for the competition side of it, Whitney said that contestants under the age of 21 are not eligible for top cash prizes.
“For some of the younger bands like one from Wyoming, we invite them to jam out all week long and to get the full blues and Memphis experience,” he said. “We want them to mix and mingle with other musicians and really learn the ropes of what the challenge and the foundation is all about.”
Getting ready for the show
The Hold-Up has a GoFundMe account to help pay travel expenses for their trip to Memphis. Love estimated that for each person, it’s going to cost about $1,800.
“We’re up to around $600 total right now,” he says. “I think over 200 people have shared it on Facebook. It’s been a great response so far.”
When asked what they are excited about, almost in unison, they say the simple experience of it all.
“We’re the youngest people to ever go,” Love says. “We just want to go. I imagine us killing it.”
“That’s why we’re going,” Blake says. “For the experience. I imagine it being awesome.”
“I just thought, ‘Go to Memphis?’ Come on,” Worthen says, as if they didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“I just want that element of surprise from people when they hear us,” Love says. “And just that chatter from the crowd and the people listening to us.”
Worthen’s mother is making popcorn upstairs. The family pup, Ramsey, sprints up and down the stairs, tripping over cords as the band runs through the Allman Brothers’ “Soulshine.”
With Blake playing both the lead and rhythm guitar, there’s something missing. Just a few weeks ago, Becker decided to drop out of the trip and quit the band. None of the kids know exactly why.
“We haven’t taken any of the songs out of the set yet,” Blake says. “But on some songs, you can tell he’s missing. And he was our blues guy.”
“It’s been a weird situation so far,” Love says. “Because he signed us up, his parents were all for it and he hasn’t really given us a straight answer on why he left. So we’ll see what happens. I guess we still have time for him to come back if he wants.”
In the meantime, The Hold-Up continues on without him. They plan on writing a few originals to play in Memphis. After warming up with a handful of covers, they dust off an original they haven’t played in a long time.
“Max came up with this bass line and then I had this guitar part for it,” Blake says. “Then we needed words.”
“So I’m kind of put on the spot,” Worthen says. “So the guys say, ‘Write about the first thing that comes to mind.’ So this song is called ‘Number 2’ and it’s about my favorite pencil.”
Worthen says that lyrics come to her at the most unconventional times. Mostly it’s at school or when she’s doing homework. Her German notebook for class is full of lyrics written in the margins.
McGee reminds Blake what key the song is in.
“Yeah, we haven’t played this in a while,” Blake says. “It might not be very smooth.”
“It will be smooth,” McGee says. “Have confidence. Let’s just play it.”
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com