Local band represents Detroit at international blues festival

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published February 4, 2015

 Members of the local rock band Soon2b — from left, bassist A.J. Verschaeve, drummer Ethan Martel and guitarist/vocalist Michael Hilgendorf — walk down Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, during a trip last month.

Members of the local rock band Soon2b — from left, bassist A.J. Verschaeve, drummer Ethan Martel and guitarist/vocalist Michael Hilgendorf — walk down Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, during a trip last month.

Photo provided by Julie Martel

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Six months ago, the members of local rock band Soon2b started down a path that many young musicians dream of, but it didn’t hit them until very recently.

After winning a music competition hosted by the Detroit Blues Society last summer, the trio — guitarist and vocalist Michael Hilgendorf, 16; bassist A.J. Verschaeve, 18; and drummer Ethan Martel, 17 — earned the opportunity to represent metro Detroit at the annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. While the band understood at the time what a big honor it was to be selected, they really appreciated the feat last month when they finally set foot in Memphis, one of the epicenters of American music.

“The gravity of what we were doing didn’t really sink in until we actually got down there and saw it for ourselves,” Hilgendorf explained. “When we first showed up on Beale Street, that’s when it kind of hit us. And I know that our love for the blues grew exponentially after being a part of this event and seeing so many amazing musicians up close.”

During their trip to Memphis from Jan. 21-25, Soon2b were able to experience many of the hallmarks that the city has to offer vintage music lovers. In addition to playing a concert at the legendary club Alfred’s on Beale for their IBC showcase, they toured Graceland, Sun Studio and the Gibson guitar factory, and they enjoyed five days of good old-fashioned southern hospitality.

As Verschaeve put it, “It was a great bonding experience that brought us all closer together as a band. Seeing the diversity of the city and the cool atmosphere was really amazing. They live a lot different lifestyle down there than we do up here. Everyone was just so positive and happy and laid-back all the time.”

The show at Alfred’s proved to be one of Soon2b’s most memorable. The band spent “loads of time” preparing beforehand, Hilgendorf noted, practicing for as long as five hours at their weekly rehearsals before making the journey south.

“The response that we got was really strong,” he said. “It was an older audience, but they were really energetic and positive. It was definitely one of the best crowds we’ve ever played in front of.”

Soon2b was founded by Verschaeve about five years ago, but the band really began to take shape once its current lineup was solidified in October 2011. Verschaeve, now a senior at Richmond High School, met Hilgendorf, a junior at L’Anse Creuse High School North, and his cousin, Martel, a senior at Dakota High School, and the three musicians immediately clicked.

The band members described their sound as a combination of everything from hard rock and heavy metal to blues and jazz to progressive instrumental music. They pride themselves on their diversity, but as Hilgendorf pointed out, “it’s all in the name of rock ’n’ roll.” They have recorded one album of original music and play regular shows around the Detroit area, where they crank out covers of classic rock and blues songs along with their own material.

Last August, Soon2b entered the Detroit Blues Society’s Youth Blues Challenge for the chance to serve as the Motor City’s youth representative at the 2015 IBC. They faced off against several other local groups at Classic Lanes in Rochester Hills and, despite some stiff competition, came out on top.

According to Martel, “We had never won a battle of the bands before that, so we were really happy to win. We don’t try to be like any other bands. We try to be unique and original, and people seem to really like that about us.”

The Detroit Blues Society judges sure did. As DBS president Steve Soviak explained, Soon2b impressed them with their ability to capture an authentic blues sound while remaining true to themselves.

“They just seemed to have a better grasp of what the blues are all about,” he said. “The blues are the mother of all American music. But in that (high school) age group, it’s the furthest thing from kids’ minds — they just don’t listen to it. Soon2b not only understood the blues, but their level of musicianship was superb. Their performance was so good that people were coming up to them afterwards and telling them they should enter the adult competition next year.”

With their position secured, Soon2b held numerous fundraising events over the next few months to help defray some of their travel expenses to the IBC. Their efforts were so successful that they were able to cover the entire cost of the trip on their own.

The IBC, which celebrated its 31st anniversary this year, is presented by the Blues Foundation each winter in Memphis’ historic Beale Street district. For adult musicians, it is a competition featuring more than 120 top blues acts from all over the world. In recent years, the Blues Foundation has added a youth category to showcase up-and-coming bands like Soon2b.

Soviak believes that events like the IBC are a great way to expose new audiences to the blues, which is one of the Detroit Blues Society’s biggest missions. While some young musicians are familiar with the genre, Soviak would like to see it become a more consistent part of school music programs.

“If the blues do go away, then they are never coming back again,” he said. “There will be no one left to remember it, so it will be gone — it’s like an indigenous Native American language. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to bring this music into our schools.”

While they are grateful for the opportunity to play on the big stage in Memphis, the members of Soon2b are already looking ahead to their next challenge: keeping the band together through their college years. Verschaeve and Martel are both set to graduate in June, while Hilgendorf has another year of high school remaining. In the fall, Verschaeve will attend Northwood University in Midland, while Martel plans to stay home and take classes at Macomb Community College.

But they’re not worried. The path that led them to Memphis this year may begin to diverge into separate branches, but they know that they will always be able to return to the universal language that brought them together in the first place.

“We will definitely continue on as a band and keep playing shows,” Verschaeve said. “College might get in the way, but I’m sure we’ll make it work. We’ll all be playing music until the day we die.”

For more information on Soon2b, visit www.soon2b.info. For more information on the Detroit Blues Society, visit www.detroitbluessociety.org.