by Mike Corrigan

At first introduction, AARON RICHNER may seem too young to have the blues, but his guitar chops and songwriting skills will make you rethink that position in a hurry. Coming from the Hendrix/Vaughn school of flamboyant electric blues, the 19-year-old's fingers fly across the fretboard with a confidence that is astounding for such a young player. His first CD with his band, the Blues Drivers, Nothing to Lose, is a steamy romp through fine original material -- "Blues I Know" is killer -- and some choice covers -- all performed with the same grit and conviction. Spokane audiences have been singing the group's praises for a couple years now (and you'll have an opportunity to do just that at their gig at the Parkside Bistro in Coeur d'Alene this Saturday). But new developments in the Richner camp will soon open the band up to considerably more worldly exposure.

Last February, the group took first place in the Experience Music Project's "Sound Off!" competition in Seattle, a youth battle of the bands for musicians under 21. With two performances at the EMP's Sky Church arena, Aaron Richner and the Blues Drivers edged out eight other young bands from all over the Northwest. The prize? Free sound gear (including a Mackie mixing board), free studio time (at Bear Creek Studios, utilized by Eric Clapton, Soundgarden and others) and a chance to open for a national blues artist (in this case, the mighty Sam McClain) back at EMP on July 19.

Incredible, yeah, but that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. And Zach Cooper, the Bone Daddies former drummer, couldn't be happier.

You all remember the Bone Daddies, right? Premier local blues rock trio. Moved to L.A. last year (but not before mysteriously changing their name to Cannon Hill). Right. Well, the L.A. thing didn't exactly pan out, and Cooper found himself back in town this spring at the precise moment Richner was looking for someone to occupy the Blues Driver's empty drummer's stool. Cooper's timing couldn't have been more perfect. It was serendipity all the way.

"It's like fate," agrees Cooper. "It's weird. You know the Bone Daddies had a good ride. And I feel really lucky that as soon as I came back, I was able to hook up with these guys and kind of pick up where I left off and continue to work."

The band now consists of Richner on vocals and guitar, Cooper on drums and long-time Blues Driver Dan Powers on bass. In addition to winning the EMP competition (prior to Cooper joining up), the group (with Cooper on board) caught the ear of local producer and engineer Dwight Finney. Finney works with the armed services lining up talent to play for U.S. military personnel all over the world -- and as we all know, they are literally all over the world right now.

"This guy has an impressive list of credentials, Cooper says. "I've learned to be kind of wary of the guys that just spout them off. But this guy has produced over 20 albums, he's got his own studio [Back Deck Studio in Post Falls] and he's a voting member of the Grammys. He also works getting local musicians out on tour with the armed forces."

As soon as Finney caught a whiff of Richner's blistering hot wires, he was hooked.

"We shared our material with him, and he really liked it. He not only offered us the tour, but he's going along as our tour manager and sound technician as well. As far as I know right now, we're going to start in Germany and then maybe hit some of the surrounding countries. But we will also be spending a week on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, and I just heard we will be stopping off in Crete, so I'm assuming Italy as well."

Before they leave for Europe on June 17, the Blues Drivers will throw a bash at Mootsy's on May 24. The band will be videotaping and recording the show for a promo packet in connection with the armed services tour.

"We wanna get some bodies in there," says Cooper. "Although it's easy to fill, that's for sure. It'll be fun to play at Mootsy's again."

Cooper says he's already settled in comfortably with his new band mates.

"We've really hit it off. I've known them for years, and we've performed side by side at Pig Out and other events. They built their notoriety themselves. I'm really proud of them. I mean, they've paid their dues at Winthrop, Ritzville, Joseph blues fests, building this thing up.

"I'm anxious to help keep that momentum going and get everyone here in Spokane familiar with these guys," he adds noting that he sees nothing but potential greatness for the Blues Drivers. "Because it won't be long."

Looking for an out-of-town excursion but not willing to leave your blues behind? Then by all means head out to the SUNBANKS RHYTHM & amp; BLUES FESTIVAL on the shores of Banks Lake near Electric City this weekend for a three-day blues music blowout that may (weather permitting) leave you scorched but satisfied.

This biannual event (one each spring and fall) draws impressive blues artists from all over the Northwest to the outdoor log stage of the Sunbanks Resort. Your ticket price buys you three days of top-notch music plus two nights of camping.

This weekend's lineup includes (but is by no means limited to) national and regional favorites the Laura Love Band, Mark Hummel and Jr. Cadillac. Some of the local acts rounding things out are Charlie Butts & amp; The Filtertips and Too Slim and the Taildraggers.

Northwest Winterfest @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Fridays, 5-8 p.m., Saturdays, 4-8 p.m. and Sundays, 3-6 p.m. Continues through Jan. 1
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