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Marais and Mojo Train, Fockler do Newmarket proud in Memphis

Glenn Marais and the Mojo Train, and solo bluesman Patrick Fockler made it to the International Blues Competition semi-finals — among the few acts from outside the U.S. not sent home after opening rounds

Memphis, Tenn. — It was so cold in Memphis, Tennessee last week that even the famous Peabody Hotel ducks were talking about flying further south.

Water pipes burst all over the city. Residents had to boil drinking water and the streets were a frozen hazard. Even Graceland was closed.

Meanwhile, in the midst of this, two great Canadian acts were heating up the bars up and down Beale Street representing Canada in the 39th annual International Blues Competition.

After two rounds of sizzling blues performances in the qualifiers, the four-piece Newmarket band, Glenn Marais and the Mojo Train, and solo bluesman Patrick Fockler impressed the judges enough to make it to the competition’s semi-finals.

Both acts had competed and won the right to represent the Grand River Blues Society at the event that brought more than 130 blues acts from across the world to Memphis to compete for prizes, notoriety and the chance to play at major blues festivals.

The Canadian acts from Newmarket didn’t travel alone. About two dozen Canadian supporters from the Newmarket area and beyond made the trek to Memphis to support their local musicians. They boisterously cheered them on as they performed and competed in some of the most famous blues bars in the world in the city often credited as the home of the Blues.

The Mojo Train enthusiasts weren’t hard to find throughout downtown Memphis. They were decked out in black hoodies with Mojo to Memphis on the back. For many, it was one part fan experience and one part January vacation exploring those few parts of Memphis that were still open.


As with all quests, the journey wasn’t without its challenges. A series of vicious storms meant the musicians and their fans did a lot of white knuckle driving through regions of the Deep South not at all equipped to clear snow and ice from their roads.

Mojo Train’s driver Gary Rushton ably navigated the Mojo Train’s rented 12-seater van loaded with the band and their gear and a handful of friends. Other travellers faced long airport delays and flight cancellations.

Even in Memphis the challenges continued. Some Canadians had to find other accommodations when water pipes burst in their hotel.

Mojo Train’s drummer Jeff Saulnier slipped on the ice on the second day and injured himself. (I’m no doctor but he probably broke some ribs). But aided by Advil and ice (and a little alcohol), Saulnier took the stage every night to perform and brought the full force and fury of the Mojo Train’s unmistakable rhythm section to Beale Street.

“They’ve got a lot of sound for four people,” said one impressed fan from Minnesota who was there to cheer on her own hometown blues band.

The Mojo Train’s dynamic keyboard player Jesse Karwat (fresh off a tour with I Mother Earth) was in high demand at the late night open jams at the Rum Boogie Café where musicians jammed after competitions wrapped at night. The jams with other world class musicians were a highlight for many of the Canadian musicians.

Mojo’s bass player Manny De Grandis was also fielding requests to play and jam with other bands. A solid bass player can never seem to leave the stage and that was the case for De Grandis.

Meanwhile Mojo Train’s charismatic frontman vocalist and guitarist Glenn Marais let it rip the first night at the Rum Boogie Café and turned a lot of heads. But once the competition began Marais dialled it in, sipping tea and honey to soothe his voice, and he rested up for the band’s performances like a pro athlete.

During his performances, solo act Patrick Fockler, looked at ease on stage, and played like he’d been there before, (which he had because he earned a spot in the semi-finals once before in the band category) as he delivered blisteringly fast and melodic blues solos playing a mix of blues covers and originals. Fockler was engaging on the mic, talking with the crowd explaining his song selections and why they mattered to him.

Fockler played both his sets at the Pig on Beale, and qualified for the semi-finals, one of very few acts from outside the United States this year that weren’t sent home after the opening rounds.

Only one of the 12 acts that made the finals was from outside the U.S. which is perhaps a little concerning for an “international” blues competition that started with 28 international acts from Canada, Germany, Italy, Norway, Croatia, France, the Netherlands and Australia.

For the well-rehearsed Mojo Train, quite simply they killed it each night. They brought their high energy style of blues-funk infused with the echoes of the Delta Blues to the stage and delivered flawless performances night after night. They had a signature sound and style that set them apart from many of the more traditional blues acts. The recipe worked and they advanced to the semi-finals.

Apart from the skilled musicianship they displayed, they delivered catchy and thoughtful songs, with Marais introducing the meaning behind them on songs like Red, Hot & Blue, written about the Memphis blues radio show that helped launch Elvis Presley’s career.

“See you at the Orpheum for the finals,” said one musician to frontman Marais after his set. Several other musicians that came by to meet the band expressed similar admiration for what they had just heard.

“You remind me of Jimi Hendrix,” said the frontman from another U.S. blues band, expressing his respect and then asking for the band’s contact info so they could connect after the competition.

It’s these informal exchanges and networking opportunities that are perhaps the greatest reason to participate, and will be the legacy of the adventure for many artists and fans.

So what’s it like behind the scenes at the International Blues Competition? The competition feels like one part music festival and one part figure skating competition.

A table of volunteer judges, who are blues lovers and connected to the Blues Society, sit at a table with an app on their phones with information about each of the bands and a rating system.

At times, depending on the venue, they have to fight to see the acts because the performances all take place in bars and restaurants and they are packed with fans and supporters for each of the acts.

The judges use the app to rank the bands and solo/duo acts out of 10 in a number of categories like blues content, originality, vocals, instrument talent and stage presence. Each performance is strictly timed and bands have only 10 minutes to set up and be ready to play after the previous performer.

That means getting your gear on stage, doing instrument and mic sound checks, setting up guitar pedals, cymbals and drum foot pedals and then you play. If you take too long, you are docked points. If you take too long to break down and clear the stage after your set, you also lose points. During the performance if you go over your allotted time — 25 minute sets for quarter finals — 30 minutes for the semis — you are docked points.

The organizers have no choice but to run a tight ship with more than 130 bands playing across 13 venues simultaneously, but the time crunch creates a heightened sense of tension and excitement. Will they start on time? Are they going to go over or under their allotted time?

Organizers hold up cue cards with two minute, one minute and 30 second advisories as the clock is ticking down on their sets. Go over at your peril. Some songs end midway through while others get stretched out for a few more bars. It’s the blues after all and it can flex as needed.

In between performances the Canadian musicians and their fans explored the frozen city that the winter storms had mostly shut down (although it would have been just another day in January for the Canadians.)

Some of the group visited Sun Studio where legends like B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich and, of course, the King himself Elvis Presley recorded records. It’s considered holy ground for blues and rock and roll fans.

Others visited the National Civil Rights Museum built into the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in 1968.

Often the Canadians gathered at the Kooky Canuck, a restaurant run by a Canadian expat from Montreal, where they could enjoy memorable Canadian dishes like poutine, Halifax donairs and Montreal-style steamie hot dogs, a late night bar staple in la belle province — and Molson Canadian beer.

These fans and friends, and dozens of others, were active for months before the trip attending various fundraising events to help offset the costs for the musicians who played for free and had to forgo paid gigs for the chance to represent the Grand River Blues Society, which they did admirably.

When the Canadians didn’t make the finals that took place at the famed Orpheum Theatre, there was clear disappointment, but not a lot of sour grapes. Drummer Saulnier reminded some of the Canadian delegation that the talent in the bars was next-level musicianship. As a veteran musician, his trained eyes, and especially ears, knew he was hearing some amazing performances.

When it was all said and done everyone packed up and returned home.

“See ya next year in Memphis,” said one group of newly found friends at the airport, a little worse for the wear, a little lighter in the wallet, but enriched for the experience.

Next year the IBC event takes place Jan. 7 to 11, 2025. For more information visit

Todd Phillips is an award-winning journalist and musician from Sunderland, Ont. who made the trek to Memphis to watch the Canadians blues acts compete.