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For Héctor Anchondo, 2020 has been an unprecedented year of rewards and challenges.
On Feb. 1, 2020, Anchondo hit the high point of his career, performing with seven other finalists and winning the International Blues Challenge solo/duo category. It was his third time representing the Blues Society of Omaha (BSO) in the International Blues Challenge (IBC) and his second time in the finals. In 2016, his band made the IBC band finals, propelling him literally and figuratively onto a higher-profile stage.
The IBC, held each winter in Memphis by the Blues Foundation, is a career-making event where artists perform for and network with blues label owners, booking agents, publicists and club owners. Making it to the final eight performers in either category from a field of over 200 artists is an important achievement. But winning marks a rising star. It’s an accomplishment that sets an artist up to land prestigious festivals and better-paying gigs at clubs.
“The entire IBC week is such a joy and celebration of the blues,” Anchondo explained. “Even going there is a huge honor. From the start, it felt like I was supposed to be there. It was one of those times where everything felt like it was synchronizing.”
On the day of the finals, Anchondo drew the first performance slot, arguably the toughest because judges may hesitate to give their highest marks to the very first act. But Anchondo was ready. In the BSO’s Omaha competition and during the week at the IBC, Anchondo often had the first performance time.
“I felt like, what a luck of the draw to have go first so many times throughout this entire adventure,” Anchondo remembered. “Going first can be challenging, but for me it felt like I was at an advantage because I can easily psych myself out by hearing all the great players before I play. This time I could play and do my thing without my mind having a chance to get the better of me. I kept telling myself, stay calm, stay focused, you will have a great set, whatever happens will be the perfect outcome, you got this. Winning is not important, winning is not the goal.
“I went out on stage and started hearing folks wishing me luck and shouting across the Orpheum, that helped me feel not alone up on that giant stage. I sat and looked up and thought about how blessed I was to be there. I was truly thankful to be there again. I said to myself, no matter the outcome, you’re leaving it all on stage and walking away proud of what you’ve done. Then it was time. I felt like my first strum of my guitar and the last strum were back to back and I was finished.”
Tammy Hespen Trahan, owner and talent booker for Fremont’s Corner Bar, was among the Omaha-area blues community members in Memphis for the event.
“His heart and soul were aligned just right for this. When he took a deep breath and looked up, I believe he was truly blessed by the music gods, because he gave it his all.” Trahan recalled. “It was by far the best performance I’ve ever seen from him. And at that moment, I knew it was his! At the end, when they announced the winners and his name was said, the whole place lit up.”
Upcoming Héctor Anchondo dates:
Lux Lounge, 5018 Underwood Ave. in Dundee
Thursday, Sept. 10, 7 p.m., and Thursday, Sept. 17, 7 p.m.
The Stave in Papillion. Sunday, Sept. 13, at noon.
See HooDoo for more local shows.
“They announced that I was the first place winner,” Anchondo remembered. “I was awestruck and felt unworthy to win such an honor. The audience was cheering, I could hear some familiar voices yelling but couldn’t make out any one of them. I couldn’t believe I actually won. I’ve been doing this for almost 25 years and this was by far my biggest achievement. All these emotions were running through me as I accepted the award. I stood there for a moment, probably a moment longer then I should have, but I wanted to remember how that felt and I wanted to remember it forever. That moment was why I had never given up. That moment was my crowning achievement to my career.”
Anchondo’s wife Jessica Steele Anchondo and their two toddler-age children were with him in Memphis. Little Héctor is three-and-a-half years old and their daughter Hendrix is 19 months old.
“Little Héctor cheered daddy on from the crowd,” Steele Anchondo said, “When he finished his set, before any other competitors played, he yelled ‘Yay! Daddy won!’
“When he really DID win, I was so emotional. I hugged the kids so tight, said ‘Oh my gosh, daddy won’ with tears down my face. I was filled with memories of how hard he has worked and what it took for him to get there and just felt so proud of him.”
Anchondo was also honored with the Memphis Cigar Box Guitar Award for best guitarist in the solo/duo category. Anchondo left Memphis on a high, heading into a Southern tour.
“I had a very warm welcome [on] every stop…It was an amazing tour,” Anchondo said. “When I got home, my band and I played some celebratory shows. It felt great to bring home the wins to the Blues Society of Omaha and to all the folks that helped me get there. I was getting a flood of gig offers from all over the country and Canada. My agent said that I had hundreds of emails to go through that had come in just for me.
“I was wowed, ‘It is finally happening for me after all these years.’ Finally, after years of couch crashing, finally after always being broke, finally after so many tours of sleeping in the van, finally after all the sacrificing, finally after missing countless family events to keep the dream alive. It was happening.”
Then Covid-19’s impact in the United States became clear.
“Things started shutting down and I knew the momentum was decimated. I did not for a second feel sorry for myself,” Anchondo noted. “I’ve spent my career fighting and I still have a lot of fight left in me. I was only worried about everyone out there that I know and love and hoped they’d be okay, That was and still is my only worry. My career will be fine, but the lives lost will not be fine and that is what makes me so sad and has my full concern.”
Like many artists, he’s taken to Facebook Live and YouTube with virtual concerts. More recently, he’s also been able to play a few socially-distanced, outdoor shows with his band.
“All the wonderful folks that have supported my career and the new folks that have come into my life have been generous during my livestreams. I have so much to be thankful for. It has felt great being on stage and seeing friends’ and family’s faces. I have missed it so and love making folks happy, it makes me happy to make the audience happy.”
In June, the Council Bluffs artists’ loft complex the Anchondos lived in flooded during a heavy rainstorm. The Anchondo’s unit was one of many left with standing, contaminated water that had backed up from the nearby sewer. Many belongings and the children’s toys were ruined and had to be thrown out. A Go Fund Me and donations from friends helped them get by. They bought a used RV.
“We’ve had so much fun moving into the RV,” Steele Anchondo said. “The hardest part has really been downsizing our belongings and figuring out how everything in the RV works. The kids love living in the ‘house car.’ We get to spend a lot more time outdoors and going on adventures. We’re really excited for this journey. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and with our home flooding and Covid, it really was the perfect time to make this transition.”
Héctor Anchondo stays positive and hopeful.
“My family keeps me positive,” Anchondo explained. “In order to be the best husband and father I can be I need to remain optimistic and positive. I don’t want my kids to have long-term suffering from what we’re all going through and I don’t want my marriage to suffer by living in a negative state. I want this to bring us closer together and make us stronger then we’ve ever been. It already has. ”
They are also engaged with the renewed quest for equality for people of color that has arisen this summer. Anchondo knows what it’s like to experience hate based on race.
“I also want to use this time to teach my children to care for our fellow humans and to reach out a helping hand. Not to hate, not to pass judgment, not to belittle, be understanding, and to love with their entire heart.”
He knows the journey back to playing music for live audiences is going to take a while, but Anchondo is ready for that too.
“It’s hazy, but I know it’s good on the other side with rediscovered appreciations and more respect for one another, It is going to take some time but it’s there waiting for all of us. We are in this together. Let’s huddle close. We are a flower waiting to bloom.”