“It’s intense. And the people there aren’t just good musicians. They’re very good performers with a story to tell.”
So said Riverhead blues artist Bruce MacDonald, who represented the Long Island Blues Society at last year’s International Blues Competition in Memphis, Tenn., finishing as a semi-finalist.
Next year, MacDonald, who also competed in the 2007 IBC, will be succeeded as Long Island’s representative blues guitarist by another North Fork resident.
After winning the 2014 Long Island Blues Society competition last month, Southold High School graduate Rob Europe will make the trip to Memphis in January.
And he has his own story to tell.
His great-grandfather James Reese Europe was a jazz bandleader who in 1910 formed the Clef Club, an African-American venue in Harlem that spawned the country’s first all African-American band signed to a recording contract. His cousin Jared Cotter is an R&B musician who performed on the sixth season of “American Idol.”
Rob Europe falls somewhere in between. The 24-year-old has been playing guitar for 10 years, and studied under the late local blues musician Ray Penney. He recalls his early days of learning the instrument, when Penney would give him a variety of genres of music to take home and learn. One of them stuck better than the rest.
“He was a good teacher, so he wanted to give me a little taste of everything,” Mr. Europe said. “We did a little classical guitar, some jazz, rock and blues. As soon as I got into blues, I connected with it. And the more I did it, the more I loved it. The more I was hooked.”
A solo performer, Europe said that over time, not only the music itself, but much of the lore, history and mystery surrounding the blues have grabbed him. He recalled one recent trip to The Crossroads — at highways 61 and 49, in Clarksdale, Miss. — where, legend has it, blues patriarch Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to play the guitar.
“When you cut music down to its most very basic — how much music can one man and a guitar make? And just the lack of understanding of the whole time period, too, makes it all the more interesting,” he said. “Most of what is going on is mythical stuff.”
After starting guitar lessons, Europe finished from high school and attended SUNY/Potsdam and Five Towns College, where he focused on the music business. Afterward, he spent some time in New York City and eventually made his way back to the North Fork.
Despite the fact that East Northport native Toby Walker won the International Blues Challenge in 2002, the blues don’t exactly have the biggest following on Long Island. So to the general observer, it might make sense for a budding blues guitarist to set up shop somewhere other than East Marion, where Europe currently lives.
As it turns out, however, the North Fork is treating him pretty well so far, at least compared to what he might be doing elsewhere. Every Monday, he plays at Brix & Rye in Greenport and every Friday, he’s at Michelangelo’s in Mattituck. In between, the North Fork’s wineries offer him plenty of opportunities to take the stage.
“In the city, a lot of places don’t pay, because so many people will play for free,” he said.
Last year’s International Blues Competition attracted an unprecedented number of entries, with 255 acts playing. For his performance in January, Europe plans to play a mix of originals and covers, likely including at least one or two from his favorite artist, Mr. Johnson.
He describes himself as more of an introvert, so his guitar — a 1958 Gibson that’s more than twice his age — does most of the talking for him on stage.
“There’s not much of a difference in how you hear [the Gibson]. It’s more in how it feels to me than anyone who is listening,” he said. “But I’m not gonna lie. A big part of it is, it just looks way more badass.”