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Calgary blues group makes semi-final appearance at International Blues Challenge in Memphis

When he was a teen, Calgary musician Mike Watson took up the tuba.

Given that the blues artist says Nirvana’s Teen Spirit and Lithium changed his life, it didn’t really mesh.

“I had gotten into the band program in Ontario and tried to take tuba, which was definitely a big mistake – especially trying to play Teen Spirit,” he said.

Watson, front man for Mike Watson and The 6L6’s, evolved his musical interests after moving from London, Ont. out to Calgary in 1994, purchasing a guitar shortly after his arrival.  

“It definitely took being 15 and moving to another province where you don’t have any friends and going into Grade 10,” he said about the next step in his musical journey.

He’s been playing professionally now for the past decade and recently wrapped up a semi-final appearance at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. To cap it off, Watson is releasing his first album at a release party May 16 at the Ironwood Stage and Grill in Inglewood.

Watson said the experience in Memphis was one he’ll never forget. After an unsuccessful bid to qualify for the prestigious event two years ago, they made it through this time as the southern Alberta representative.

“We tried to do it two years ago and it didn’t pan out in our favour,” Watson said.

“To do it again and be selected just to represent Calgary is a pretty big honour for us.”

Watson said they met and jammed with blues artists from around the world on renowned musical strip Beale Street: Poland, Spain, Brazil, Bosnia – just to name a few, and he said you could hear the native influences on their blues music when they played.

“On other parts they sound just like a band from Mississippi. It’s not meant as an insult, but you can hear when things get European because of certain influences and the way things get interpreted,” he said.

Watson said just walking down Beale Street and hearing something different every 20 to 30 steps was extraordinary.

“It was just out of control. I’ve never seen anything like it and I don’t think I will again until I go back,” he said.

Exposure to the different sounds and musicians definitely had an impact on Watson but he said it was the daily exchanges with people that he thinks will influence his future work most.

“It’s more like the social interaction I had with the people on Beal. Waitresses in the morning… you know, just the sense of the Memphisian culture. If I may use such a nuts word,” he said.

Now he’s prepping for his first album release – Jesus Built My Tubes – later this spring.

“The album itself, is blues, rock and roll, delta blues a little bit of Chicago blues all rolled into one. Then there’s a definite gospel influence,” Watson said.

The album was four years in the making, was recorded in a day and he wanted to make sure this one stood out.

“With all the different blues albums that you hear… a lot of people and a lot of young people start to think that the blues just kind of sounds the same or sounds old and not with the times,” Watson said.

“(The album’s) definitely a progressive sound that you wouldn’t hear on most blues records. I’m hoping to give a nod to the older traditions of the past, but also step forward into the future so we’re not stagnant old people.”

He’s looking forward to getting the new album out there, but fans are going to have to wait bit… unless you run into Watson by chance.

“If someone sees me at the Ship and Anchor and they’re really nice, they might be able to buy one off me, but really I’m waiting until May 16 for the release,” he said.