Last summer, at around 4 a.m. on Aug. 28, Steve Sainas came home after a gig at the Yale Hotel in Vancouver, sat down in front of the computer and read.
The White Rock Blues Society had sent out an email, asking blues musicians around the province to enter a talent search in October.
Sainas, fine arts department head at Port Coquitlam’s Terry Fox Secondary, compiled some information about his band, Mud Dog, and pressed send.
A month and a half later, on Oct. 17, Sainas and harmonica player Christopher Allen were on stage at the Rhumba Room of the Pacific Inn, competing against six other shortlisted acts – including White Rock-South Surrey luminaries Kathy Frank and James Shepherd – for the showdown title in the society’s Solo/Duo Blues Challenge.
Winner would represent B.C. and Canada at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn., which happens Feb. 1 to 5. Last year, the event was won by a Canadian, a first.
Mud Dog played four original Delta Blues songs – Three Good Reasons, Step Into The Light, Gastown Blues and Train – and won rave reviews.
Trouble was, they were three minutes and 10 seconds over the limit and the judges knocked off a point for every 10 seconds they went over their allotted time.
Sainas and Allen didn’t know about the regulation so, as the featured band from Seattle – Becki Sue and her Big Rockin’ Daddies – performed during the next two hours, they fretted about the penalties.
Then lead singer Becki Sue spoke to the crowd. “Is Mud Dog in the house?” she asked. “You guys are going to Memphis!”
Mud Dog had won the competition by a single point. They would be joined in Memphis by Peninsula favourites Sam and Luke, already chosen by the society to carry the flag in the youth category.
Sainas was overjoyed. But he and Allen soon decided they had to make the most of their time in the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and the blues.
They contacted a representative from the legendary Sun Studios and booked a time to record some tracks. And, as luck would have it, they managed to get four hours the night before the 27th annual festival starts, with engineer/producer Matt Ross-Spang at the controls. (Ross-Spang worked on John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This album in 2009).
Sainas said they plan to lay down 11 songs – an ambitious task, to be sure.
“If we do it in one take each, just like we do it live, then it can be done,” the Coquitlam resident said. “But if we have difficulty getting that stage energy in the studio then it could be hard. Sometimes, you get into the studio and it just rolls but sometimes you are chopping wood and it takes everything out of you.”
Still, Sainas is no stranger to cutting tracks.
Twelve years ago, he met a mentor named Donn Tarris, a folk/rock musician who was doing open mic at the now-defunct Johnny’s Place. Sainas was temporarily filling in for the regular act at the Port Moody eatery, plucking up enough courage to perform solo, when the two struck up a friendship. At that time, Sainas was an English and special education teacher at Fox, struggling to make ends meet: He had a young family, his wife was out of work and budget cuts loomed for the special ed. department.
Tired and frustrated, Sainas found solace in his nighttime gigs, and Tarris offered to help by showing him how to record music. One day, Tarris invited Sainas over to his home, plugged in a couple of microphones and hooked them up to his Mac Book G3.
Sainas liked the results and started tinkering around. The next year, Sainas felt he had enough confidence to pitch a new department at Fox called digital recording arts “and that was the beginning of what I’m doing now,” he said. “I look back and think, ‘What would have happened if Donn hadn’t tugged my arm and said, try this?’”
Today, Sainas’ recording arts and Rock School programs are among the most popular courses at Fox, with some Grade 9 to 12 students taking them more than once a year (his Grade 9 son and Grade 11 daughter are also involved).
He sometimes puts his recording arts classes on “auto pilot,” giving them the independence and ability to work on their projects, using Mac Logic Studio software, at their own speed because “in this business, you need to be able to do it yourself. That’s how you get ahead,” Sainas said, noting he recorded half of Mud Dog’s 2003 CD, titled Devil’s Road, in the Fox studio.
During his trip to Memphis — what he calls “professional development” — Sainas plans to document the sights and sounds for his students so they, too, can get a feel of the history of The River City.
The fact that he’s heading there seems surreal. “It’s a dream come true,” he said.
But he’s been too busy to think about it, juggling his teaching duties, Mud Dog gigs, coming to terms with the loss last week of his good friend, Fox football coach Carey Lapa, and the three Rock the Fox shows, put on by his Rock School students.
It doesn’t faze him that he’s competing against 82 other solo/duo acts from around the world, nor that he’s playing in venues on the iconic Beale Street in Memphis.
Rather, he’s nervous about the details of the trip: the safety of his beloved Dobro guitar on the plane, the cleanliness of the hotel.
And he’s concentrating on the set, the same winning one that Mud Dog played at the Rhumba Room three months ago.
“This time,” he promised, “we won’t go over the time limit.”
• The Mud Dog in Memphis fundraiser takes place Jan. 26 from 9 p.m. to 1:15 a.m. at the Yale Hotel (1300 Granville St., Vancouver). Admission is $10 at the door and includes performances by Fandangozz (a ZZ Top tribute band) and popular Peninsula band Blue Voodoo.