Looking for a name for your Boston-based blues band? How about "Hanging Chad"?
Boston's small blues community and the 2000 presidential election seemingly have very little in common. But playful hyperbole aside, there are questions as to why a recent iteration of a contest that annually sends a Boston band to represent the city in a Memphis festival featured a judge who often plays with the winning outfit.
Nearly every January, the winner of the Boston Blues Society's "Boston Blues Challenge" gets to represent the area at the International Blues Challenge (IBC). In the local blues community, it's akin to winning Miss USA and going on to the Miss Universe Pageant.
This year, the winner of the Boston Blues Challenge was the Mike Crandall Band — a victory that, on the surface, seemed pretty straightforward. The band is highly regarded, and the three judges of the contest used their IBC score sheets to determine the winner. But a YouTube search tells a different story. One of the deciding judges, Ricky "King" Russell, is all over the site playing with the winner, and admits to being a "hired member" of the Mike Crandall Band, even playing with them two years ago at the IBC.
Conflict of interest? No, says Russell. "I felt I could be one of the best judges they ever had, because I know the music so well and I know the people so well," Russell tells the Phoenix by phone. "All the more reason I make a good judge, because I do know everybody. Who would be more qualified than me?"
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a good judge [in Boston] who isn't completely in the scene," notes one of the other deciding judges, Richard "Rosy" Rosenblatt, adding, "If I was judging in Memphis and a Boston band was in the finals, I'd recuse myself." But here in Boston, he explains, it's a "very tight, little" community.
I heard about this story when I received a mass e-mail from runner-up band 2120 South Michigan Avenue's harmonica player, Charlie "Harvard" Sawyer, a former professor of mine. (Conflict of interest? I'm aware of the irony. But who would be more qualified to write this story than me?)
"When it comes to the arts," Sawyer wrote in his e-mail, "there are no level playing fields."
According to vocalist Mike Crandall, a friend of the band's asked Boston Blues Society President Karen Nugent if it was okay for Russell to be judging the competition, since he'd played with the band. Nugent insisted he could judge fairly.
"I thought [Russell] could be objective," says Nugent.
"I knew that the Crandall Band was playing," says Russell, "but I had no idea they were going to win."
Nugent also says that, when the winner was challenged, the scores were tallied without Russell's numbers and the Crandall Band still won.
"We ask judges if there is a conflict of interest," says Joe Whitmer, event producer of the IBC, "and if there is, we move them to a different venue." Local affiliates like the Boston Blues Society, however, are independent, and permitted to develop their own policy.
"I would place [what happened at the Boston Blues Challenge] under growing pains," he says. "Sometimes, the most important rules we enact come from learning the lesson the hard way."
"Anybody making accusations is being a poor sport," says Russell. "I've lost before. You get over it."
For more information on local shows and the IBC, go to bostonblues.org and blues.org.