The sound

July 28, 2011 |

by Michael Swanger


The Lionel Young Band, pictured at this year's International Blues Challenge, performs Friday, July 29 at 9:30 p.m. at All Play. Tickets are $10. Visit
Award-winning blues violinist Lionel Young makes his Des Moines debut


Ask any local blues musicians fortunate enough to win the solo/duo or band competition at the Iowa Blues Challenge who have experienced the joy of representing their state while competing with more than 160 blues acts from around the world at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis, and they will tell you that just being there, playing to packed clubs on Beale Street and meeting with industry insiders and fellow musicians is reward enough. Subjective judging and a high level of competition is such that if musicians make the trek to Memphis expecting to win, the return trip home can be longer if they fall short of the top prize.

Lionel Young, a New York native and Colorado-based bluesman, understands the importance of staying grounded at the IBC because there was a time when his band didn't advance past a local preliminary round of competition. Then again, unlike any of the thousands of other blues musicians who have competed in Memphis over the years, Young is the only one to have reached the mountaintop twice after having won the IBC's 2008 solo/duo division and 2011 band competition.

"Winning has its advantages," said Young via telephone from the road last week en route to the Midwest for a handful of shows, including his Des Moines debut on Friday, July 29 at All Play. "You get a nice festival package, and when I won the solo/duo competition I got to go to Italy and other places I had never been to before and played at the Blues Music Awards where I got to meet Koko Taylor and Hubert Sumlin. It has allowed me to take my music to places I wouldn't of had the chance to if we didn't win. But you never know what can happen at the IBCs, and a lot of people end up feeling slighted if they don't win."

Young, who sings and plays guitar and violin (more on that later), said that he found winning the band competition to be especially rewarding because he was able to share the victory with his bandmates.

"Winning by yourself is cool and you feel validated, but winning with the band is what I really wanted to do, to share the experience," Young said. "Plus all the work you do to prepare for the competition makes the band better."

Before Young and his five bandmates traveled to Memphis to compete in this year's IBC, they recorded an album, aptly titled "On Our Way to Memphis."

"Turned out it was the best thing for us to do, especially when you're on the road because you need merchandise to sell," he said.

Young's journey to the blues has been unconventional, having taken the road less traveled. He began taking violin lessons at age 6, studying the Suzuki Method at The Eastman School of Music in New York. Later, he joined the Pittsburgh Opera-Ballet Orchestra and National Repertory Orchestra, which allowed him to perform his instrument at Carnegie Hall and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul Korea. But it wasn't until his adulthood when he realized that the violin was used in some of the blues' earliest recordings by artists Charley Patton, the Mississippi Sheiks and Sugar Cane Harris.

"I got to know Gatemouth Brown, who played a variety of instruments including violin, and Claude Fiddler Williams before they died and learned things from them," said Young.

These days, Young also plays slide guitar, after having experimented playing slide on his violin. But it is his first instrument of choice that continues to attract the attention of audiences wherever he plays.

"If you haven't seen it before, it's a little shocking," he said. "Once people are shocked, you have their attention. But it's what you do with it, how you play that matters the most. People want to know if you have something to say or if you can make them feel something. It doesn't matter what you play as long as you can communicate with others." CV