Singer-harmonica player Gary Bernath has been on a whirlwind journey with his Lights Out Blues Band. Beginning as a side project, Bernath and his band mates hosted a House Of Blues blues jam, picked up a huge amount of rotation venues, and last spring won the Granite State Blues Challenge hosted by the Granite State Blues Society. That win means that Lights Out Blues Band will be competing in the International Blues Competition in Memphis, Tennessee this coming January, 2018. Lights Out Blues Band will be a co-feature at a Manchester, New Hampshire fundraiser this Sunday afternoon at the Strange Brew Tavern in Manchester, New Hampshire. The fundraiser will help each act, who won in that competition last spring, defray the cost of traveling to Memphis.
“I never win anything. So I was pleasantly surprised,” Bernath said. “I don’t think we were really focused on winning and losing. We just wanted to go up and play and have a good time. We knew some of the other players. We just thought we’d participate, see what happened, and we were fortunate, very fortunate I think, because all the other bands were really good.”
Bernath said he and his Lights Out Blues Band don‘t really have a plan or strategy to win the I.B.C. “There’s a lot going on down there,” he said. “From what I understand, you actually play two nights, Wednesday and Thursday. So, I just want to go up and do what we do as well as we can do it. And let the chips fall where they will. But, I just want to play well and really deliver strong performances that make the statement of the music that we’re playing.”
Bernath has never been to Memphis. He did once visit New Orleans with his son. While the two were there, they had decided that the next city to visit on their next trip would have to be Memphis. “We were planning on going down there for three or four days. This is really terrific because he is going to go too. The only difference is….I’m playing, so it’s great.”
Bernath is looking forward to the city of Memphis and its social strata that appeals to him the most. One well known New England blues band, Bernath said, has told him to just enjoy his Memphis stay. “From what people are telling me, it’s about the people you meet, the musicians you meet, the networking. It’s just blues everywhere and great musicians.”
For his Memphis set, Bernath is considering all originals. At the Granite State Blues Challenge last spring, his Lights Out Blues Band played three originals out of four songs. “I think we’re going to go with that,” Bernath said. “We can go from a four piece harmonica blues type thing to a big band sounding horn kind of thing, swing. We can show both because I play saxophone as well as harmonica. We’re going to try to show our diversification and originality and stay true to being a traditional band, upright bass. Our biggest influence is the Chess stuff out of the 50s.”
For this Sunday’s fundraiser in New Hampshire, Bernath and his band mates will play nine to 10 originals as well as gems by Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf. “That’s the stuff that we’re really specializing in,” Bernath said. “Pretty much what we normally play. We’re not a blues-rock band. We’re going to stay right into the traditional sound.”
Bernath’s Lights Out Blues Band is rounded out by guitarist Clay Brown, Upright bassist Brian Rost, and drummer Dave Baker. “The guitar player, our primary guitar player that I’ve been playing with the last couple of years is Clay Brown, from Attleboro,” Bernath said. “He’s a music teacher. He teaches actually guitar and saxophone. He’s a tremendous player. He’s very, very technically proficient but he also has a wonderful feel. He’s really on the same page as me as far as our mission direction. It feels really comfortable playing with Clay. He’s a good singer too. We incorporate harmonies, two part harmonies, which is rare in blues, but we throw those in.”
“The bass player, Brian Rost,” Bernath continued, “is from Northboro. He’s very well know in eastern Massachusetts. He’s played with a lot of other harp players, like Barbeque Bob, and Professor Harp, and Cheryl Arena. He really understands the whole Willie Dixon style that were used in those recordings and very Little Walter educated. So he works well with me. He knows the songs. If I say ‘I want to do ‘Off The Wall’ he says ‘Which version? There’s 13, by Walter alone.’”
“Dave Baker,” Bernath went on, “our drummer. He’s from Weymouth. He’s a tremendous drummer, very well respected. I met him down at the Next Page, and he plays with a lot of South Shore guys, very well known down there. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by three very, very talented guys who understand the vision that I have.”
Bernath and his Lights Out Blues Band will be co-hosting the Memphis fundraiser with two other acts, an acoustic duo act called Baza Blues and a youth performer named Veronica Lewis who also emerged victorious in their categories at the Granite State Blues Challenge. “We met them at the Challenge,” Bernath said. “Baza Blues are really good. Both guys are very talented. They’ve got a wonderful sound, guitar and harmonica. They do some really good stuff. I was very impressed with them. Veronica is just a talented young woman. She’s very strong. We hung out with them a bit in May, and I’m looking forward to seeing them Sunday.”
Bernath started playing blues in college in 1971. His early bands used to play Boston area venues like The Speakeasy, Brandy’s 1, and The Shamboo. After college he became a part time band person, moving through various bands and recording a number of CDs. After many years, he wanted to get back to the roots of the Chess Recordings and artists like Little Walter. He had only intended his Lights Out Blues Band as a side project to a busier band he had been fronting. Yet, the Lights Out became more heavily booked, phasing out Bernath’s previous band. In 2015, the House Of Blues on Landsdowne Street in Boston, across the street from Fenway Park, asked Bernath and Lights Out to host their blues jams once a month in their Foundation Room.
“That was a great experience,” he said. “I met a lot of people. Willie J. Laws played with me one night because my guitar player couldn’t make it, and Willie and I had a great time. I met a lot of people through that. Since that, Lights Out Blues Band has been working all over the place. We’re a pure traditional blues band, which I didn’t think there was much market for, but actually there seems to be, some. There’s real stalwarts out there that recognize people that are trying to play this.”
Bernath and his band got an invitation from a Granite State Blues Society board member to compete in their Blues Challenge, bringing the Lights Out Blues Band to the height of their success. Bernath isn’t sure why Granite State Blues Society invited them to compete. “I don’t know,” he said. “They may have heard about us from somewhere. I’m not sure. They knew what we did. My website’s out there so they might have heard some of it as well. We accepted.”
G.S.B.S. Board member and Vice President Roxanne Mann said the fundraiser will help defray the costs for the musicians to travel to and stay in Memphis. “We divide it up equally,” Mann said. “There are seven artists. Four in the band, two in the duo, and one soloist-our Youth Performer, Veronica Lewis. Whatever we raise, we divide it up among the seven.”
Mann said that G.S.B.S. has a second Road To Memphis type fundraiser coming up at the Village Trestle in Goffstown, New Hampshire on a Saturday night, January 6th. “I’m just glad it’s not on a Sunday so I’m not competing with anything football,” Mann quipped.
Bernath, some 20 years ago, competed in a couple of Boston Blues Challenges, back when Boston Blues Society used to hold it at Harper’s Ferry. In the high traffic, college centric Allston neighborhood of the Hub. “I was in a couple of those (competitions). One was with Sue Tedeschi. I didn’t win that one,” he recounted, chuckling at the quip. Today, Bernath, with Lights Out, plays out from New Hampshire and Methuen to South Shore to Worcester to occasional stops in his Framingham area, where there used to be a huge blues scene.
“You had six bars on a Friday night that were hosting blues bands in Franklin,” he said. “There was The Blue Buffalo, and The Chicken Bone, and there were a lot of bars in this town for a while that really supported blues. That has all kind of dried up. The Bone closed a couple of years ago. Blue Buffalo went out a long time ago. Even the Happy Swallow is gone. However, there’s a couple of places that we’re doing now. One is called Pho Dakao, which is a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown. They have jazz trios on Friday nights. We can play on the jazz side of blues. We’ve been doing that. Then, there’s a new club called The Fours on 135. He wants to get blues going again. So, there’s a little bit of a resurgence. The main room around here that’s been helping people out is Jasper Hill. That’s in Holliston.”
The Sunday benefit will take place at Strange Brew Tavern, 88 Market Street, Manchester, New Hampshire at 3:00 p.m. this Sunday, October 15, 2017. For more information, or to donate through a donate button, please visit Granite State Blues Society’s website: