MARIETTA - There are no geographical restrictions on the acts that can compete in the River City Blues Competition, nor on the fans who keep coming back.
"We've been coming down here for about 15 years from up around Akron," said Bob Crow, 60, attending the first night of the competition Friday at the Lafayette Hotel in Marietta with his wife, Diane. "Good friendships down here, nice town, and the good blues music. That's what it's all about this weekend."
More than 200 people gathered Friday in the Lafayette's ballroom to hear the first five acts in the 21st annual competition perform (a sixth, Melissa McKinney and Jay Hayes from Princeton, W.Va., had to cancel). The music resumes at 12:30 p.m. today with 10 more performers before the top two from Friday and the top four from today return for the finals at 8 p.m.
Paul the Resonator, aka Paul Grussendorf of Shepherdstown, W.Va., performs during the first night of the 21st annual River City Blues Competition Friday at the Lafayette Hotel in Marietta. (Photo by Evan Bevins)
The winner- or two of the top three finishers if there's at least one group or solo/duo- will receive sponsorship from the Blues, Jazz and Folk Music Society of Marietta to the 2014 International Blues Competition in Memphis.
Hoping to make a return trip are Chaz Humley and the Effects, a four-piece band from the Charleston, W.Va., area. Bass guitarist and lead vocalist Jim Spence (there is no Chaz Humley; it's the misprinted name one of the band members received on a paycheck years ago) said they just returned from this year's IBC after winning a competition in Pomeroy last year. Friday marked their second trip to Marietta, where they made their competitive debut a year ago.
Spence admitted the group was a little tight as they made the transition from concerts to competition at the Lafayette in 2012.
"(But) you start to realize the bands aren't competing. You're just up there to play," he said. "The only difference between playing here and a festival is here we play 20 minutes and at a festival we get to play an hour."
Outside of a fundraiser in their home turf of Akron, Friday was the first competition for the Rooster Jones Band. Bass guitarist Al Stambaugh said Marietta was a great place to start.
"The atmosphere down here's relaxing enough that you feel OK," he said.
While it was the first performance in the Pioneer City for the five-year-old band, it wasn't the first visit for some members.
"There's a lot to see, a lot of great history here," said keyboardist Paul Rolenz, who has visited multiple times with his wife.
Drummer Glen "Otis" Beitzel, meanwhile, remembered coming to Marietta for the Band-O-Rama competition when he was a high school band member.
Friday was also the first competition for Sheperdstown, W.Va., resident Paul Grussendorf, aka Paul the Resonator.
"I just thought it'd be fun to take a drive over the mountain" and enter, he said. "It's different than when you're just kicking back ... but of course you do really appreciate when the people come out to here you play."
Outside of Chaz Humley and the Effects, just three of the remaining 14 entries in the competition have been in it before. That's just fine with Cambridge resident Tony Smith, 55, who has been to all 21 editions.
"Something you've never heard ... it's something to look forward to," he said. "'Cause it might be that one surprise."
Smith said that surprise last year was the Tee Dee Young Band, who also swayed the judges and took top honors at the competition.
"The more that are coming in new, the better," he said.
The audience was a mix of veteran attendees and newcomers as well. Chris Cunningham, 48, of Chillicothe, has been to the event five or six times and finally convinced best friend Steve Wachovec, 50, to take off a weekend and come along.
Before the music started, Wachovec said he was already impressed with the town and the Lafayette, where they were staying.
"This is one of the coolest hotels I've ever been in," he said. "Chillicothe's an old town too ... and it's unique, but I tell you what, some of your buildings blow us out of the water."
Logan, Ohio, residents Lynn Waters and Dale Siegler came last year for the first time.
"We liked it so much last year, we're back," said Waters, 54. "The whole blues competition. ... This town too - we absolutely love the Marietta Brewing Company."
The first night of the competition got off to a good start from Smith's perspective, with Mentor resident Dan Holt and Cleveland's Brickhouse Blues Band also taking the stage.
"And it'll just get better throughout the weekend," Smith said.