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Bad Pennies ready to rep B.C. at 2024 International Blues Challenge

After finishing second in the Fraser Valley Blues Society annual battle of the bands, the Bad Pennies won be default and will go on to the Memphis competition

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Sometimes, losing can be a win. At least that’s what happened with B.C.-based blues trio the Bad Pennies.

The initial core group, featuring guitarist/vocalist Jeff Baker of alt-rockers Savonarola and bassist Mark Milner, formed out of jam sessions at Pandora’s Box rehearsal studios in the fall of 2022.

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Baker had played a lot of blues around the local circuit and felt that “itch wasn’t getting scratched,” so he wanted to put a group together. An ad in Craigslist resulted in overwhelming response, and the group took off with Milner and another drummer. When the original timekeeper had to bow out due to other gigs, Ladner resident and Tsawwassen counsellor Jim Reid filled the drummer’s stool in early January 2023.

Reid’s arrival proved to be the final piece of the musical puzzle.

The power trio found its footing fast, taking on everything from classics by Robert Johnson and Jimmy Rogers to blues rockers ranging from Gary Moore and Stevie Ray Vaughan to the Southern rock of the Allman Brothers. With less than two months’ time together, the band entered the Fraser Valley Blues Society’s annual competition in Abbotsford.

“I think we’d played together about four times when Mark brought in the flyer for the competition and we all just decided, ‘Sure, let’s do it,’” says Reid. “We didn’t even expect to get accepted, but we got the OK. I only started playing drums six years ago after I turned 50, because I thought I wasn’t getting any younger and had to do it now.”

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Playing in various classic-rock combos at local legions, Reid realized that his real love for his instrument was based in the rollicking rhythms and fluid flow of the blues. The same holds true for the other coins in the Bad Pennies.

“To one degree or another, we have always been the kind of band that could play live on the spot, as we tend to be pretty open, going for it and encouraging mistakes and experiments that all fit the music’s direction,” said Baker. “So we went and did the Fraser Valley competition with that approach and didn’t win. But we were the runners-up, so when the winners stepped down, we became the Miss Congeniality of the blues.”

Along with the win came the chance to head down to the 2024 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn., to represent the Fraser Valley Blues Society and, by extension, B.C. blues. The band has been gigging around local joints like LanaLou’s and the Princeton Hotel to fill the coffers with travel funds.

Held from Jan. 16-20 on legendary Beale Street, which is often considered the launch pad for contemporary electric blues, the IBC is produced by the Memphis-based the Blues Foundation. The annual event is billed as “the world’s largest gathering of blues musicians.” With 20-plus clubs hosting players from all over the world, the multi-day calendar includes seminars, master classes, networking opportunities and a lot of barbecue.

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“It’s pretty exciting, as none of us has ever been down there before,” said Baker. “Blues are easy to play, but really hard to play well. Anyone can figure out the chords, but to get that beat that drags, to find the feel, it’s something I think you’re born with. We’re really excited to get this opportunity and also learning experience.”

All three band members head down to Memphis on Jan. 14 and have no idea how many artists they are going to be grooving with. Everyone plays a 20-minute set and gets judged by a panel of experts on everything from quality of musicianship to the more esoteric elements of the group’s “it factor.” Baker says the Bad Pennies have rehearsed following the competition guidelines from the get-go.

“We have it down to the letter and literally nobody else in the last competition did that,” he said. “Here we were being sure to discuss the song’s history, to talk about the influences and so forth. We’ll see how it goes.”

Besides playing at the IBC, the Bad Pennies plan to visit Graceland. And there is a Canadian Artist Jam after the competition at the cooly named Rum Boogie Café into the wee hours.

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The band’s first show when they get back to B.C. is a homecoming Valentine’s Day gig at Burnaby’s Admiral Pub & Grill (4125 Hastings St.) on Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. For tickets or more information, go to thebadpennies.com.

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