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Shakey Trill duo, Mike MacDonald on guitar and Tyler Pantlin on harmonica, are heading to Memphis, Tennessee to compete in the 35th annual International Blues Challenge January 22 to 26. Peter McNeice photo

Hub Staff

Steeped in the history of the blues, the town of Memphis, Tennessee is about to experience the stylings of Saugeen Shores very own Mike MacDonald and Tyler Pantlin, known collectively as Shakey Trill, as the duo prepares to take part in the International Blues Challenge (IBC) January 22 to 26.

The 35th annual competition is judged by blues professionals from around the world and represents a search for musicians who are ready to perform on the international stage but who may need that extra big break. The five day challenge will see over 200 acts compete in different categories including Band, Solo/Duo and Youth.

MacDonald and Pantlin were invited to compete in Memphis after winning a regional competition by IBC affiliate, Bruce County Blues Society, November 4 in Kincardine.

For the Saugeen Shores duo, experiencing the blues in the deep south has always been a dream. “We're both very invested in that genre of music," said MacDonald when we chatted with the pair late last year. "Since I was a kid I've come to learn about all these blues greats, a lot of them have come through that area so it's going to be really neat to be there and just kind of feel that vibe,” he said.

“Now that we're able to go in this fashion it's even better as we're experiencing music, we're playing music, it's going to probably be the best way we could experience that area,” said MacDonald. “We won't want to leave," he said.

MacDonald said he was also excited to meet and listen to other musicians in the competition. “A lot of these acts may not have made it to the point of radio play or whatever, so you never really get to hear them," he said. "So this is an opportunity here... great music from different locations.”

Pantlin agreed. “To witness the worldly talent, that's the big thing," he said, adding that he never would have thought when he first picked up a harmonica that he would go "right into the heart" to play.

"Just to be exposed to that and have the opportunity to perform our own songs in the place where the blues was somewhat born," said Pantlin.

The duo is set to leave Saugeen Shores next week, a week before the competition begins, in order to experience as much of the area as they can. They hope to go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, about 130 kilometres south of Memphis, to check out some juke joints; as well as a visit to Muscle Shoals Recording Studio in Alabama, about 250 kilometres east of Memphis. Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, and the historic Sun Studios, both in Memphis, are also on the agenda.

MacDonald said it was a way to connect to the history of the art form. "To dig further back into the history when it all started," he said. "Blues seems to be something that as you question and you try to learn more you end up going further back in time," he added.

The community has rallied around the duo to help them cover travel costs. A fundraiser was held at The Wismer House in Port Elgin December 7 and on January 5 the Bruce County Blues Society hosted a "Queen Street to Beale Street" fundraiser at The Bruce in Kincardine. Both Pantlin and MacDonald said they were extremely grateful to all involved.

“It shows what an awesome community we have here and how great music is appreciated and encouraged," said MacDonald. "We've had great support from fellow musicians, friends and the community," he said.

MacDonald added that The Wismer House and owner Jeff Carver were covering their flights to Memphis. "Jeff was at the [regional qualifier] in Kincardine. It was great to see him there as it shows he's genuinely interested in what's going on in the community and the musicians that play at his establishment,” MacDonald said.

Carver said live music has been part of The Wismer House culture since he first purchased the establishment and that MacDonald and Pantlin have been a big part of building that culture. The pair have performed with various bands, both individually and together, who at one time or another have hit the Wismer stage.

"When you see someone like that and they're chasing a dream...I thought we've come this far together, let's keep going," Carver said. "I was really proud of them.”

Shakey Trill is touted as an original, gutsy and raw blues duo with MacDonald playing guitar and slide guitar and Pantlin playing harmonica. The pair share vocals. "So [Pantlin will] lead and sing and play harmonica and I'll sit back and support and maybe do a bit of harmony and then we change it up a bit," explained MacDonald.

The band name of Shakey Trill is a recent development and was created specifically for the Memphis competition. While Six Wires and the Metal Sandwich was a contender, six wires being the guitar and the metal sandwich being the harmonica, the pair settled on Shakey Trill.

MacDonald explained that 'Shakey' was a nickname he had acquired from a previous band mate because of his unsteady hands while Pantlin said that 'Trill' was a musical term describing a rapid back and forth between two notes.

"I was always drawn to it from listening to Muddy Waters blues albums and the harmonica players playing that trill," said Pantlin. "It's like a butterfly fluttering. When I heard it I was like I have to be able to do that," he said.

Both musicians were born in Southampton and still reside in Saugeen Shores. Now 37 years old, MacDonald said he started taking guitar lessons when he was 10. “I told my guitar teacher that I listened to Eric Clapton and a few weathered musicians,” said MacDonald, adding that she advised him to listen to blues records and try to emulate what he heard. "So all through high school I would sit in my bedroom and play and try and emulate what blues musicians were doing," he said.

Now 32 years old, Pantlin said he was around 18 when he started playing the harmonica. “What originally got me playing was Bob Dylan, Neil Young, that sort of thing,” he said. “I always appreciated the blues but I kind of got into the Beatles, finding out what their influences were, Chuck Berry, and then eventually finding the sound of the blues," he said.

Pantlin said his uncle was a big listener of music. “I always remember going to his place and hearing that kind of music and when I heard it I was like 'There it is, I finally found it,'" he said.

With the likes of the Sapsuckers, Riverbend Gentlemen, Crazy Chester, Peter Irwin and the Memphis Rebels and The Jugheads in their collective and individual repertoire, the two are well known in the local music scene. And while they both enjoy listening to and performing a variety of musical genres, blues is their favourite.

MacDonald said there's something different about it. "If I want to listen to something that's going to really inspire me, it's probably going to be the blues," he said. "It feels right, sounds right and everything else is great but it doesn't compare."

Playing the blues has to be your own story, said MacDonald, adding that that's the only way it's going to come across as real. "It's about trying to find not necessarily the purest form but more how do you connect your thoughts and just in the feeling," he said. "It's conviction, it's a quest for that," said MacDonald.

"Ultimately, it's the blues that gives us the most satisfaction at the end of the day," added Pantlin.

The pair has spent the last year seriously preparing for IBC and is guaranteed two sets of 35 minutes each, about eight songs per set, to impress the judges. Performers will get narrowed down from there but competition will be fierce.

"Just to be able to sit in with that calibre of musicians, performers, artists, is a huge compliment and we want to stand out,” Pantlin said. "The only thing that's going to make us stand out is our original feel and our original style," he said.

MacDonald said that the objective was not to win but to do the best they can, to enjoy it and to "take it all in."

Shakey Trill 1

Shakey Trill's Mike MacDonald and Tyler Pantlin are heading to Memphis, Tennessee and will be one of over 200 acts competing in the International Blues Challenge. Peter McNeice photo

Shakey Trill 2

Shakey Trill, Peter McNeice photo