Beale Street may be the "Home of the Blues," but this week, perhaps more than any other time of the year, that's true, with more than 200 blues acts from around the globe — bands, duos, and solo artists — descending on the fabled street for the 29th International Blues Challenge. And the three-stage contest itself is merely the cornerstone of a week's worth of events celebrating the genre. Some of the highlights:
A four-day, three-stage contest will winnow down the field of more than 200 entrants to individual winners in both band and solo/duo competitions. Quarterfinal heats will take place in venues all along Beale on Wednesday and Thursday, with high scorers passing on the semifinal events in the same clubs on Friday night.
Finalists in both competitions will gather at the Orpheum on Saturday for a final, blowout competition, after which winners will be crowned. Combining band and solo/duo finals into one event rather than separate ticketed events is the biggest change this year.
Hopefuls have landed in Memphis from every corner of the country and, increasingly, from all over the globe, with acts from Spain (Belceblues), Switzerland (Fabian Anderhub), Croatia (Delta Blues Gang), the Netherlands (Sugar Boy & the Sinners), the Philippines (Kat Magic Express), and Slovakia (Lubos Bena & Charlie Slavik) only the tip of the international iceberg.
Most are, to this point, unknown outside their home territories. But some come with bigger resumes. One that might be worth keeping an eye on is Little G Weevil, representing the Atlanta Blues Society. A young Hungarian immigrant who spent some time in Memphis before settling, for the moment, in Georgia, he combines rough juke-joint riffs and Bo Diddley beats into a warm-toned sound that suggests vintage and modern all at once. Little G Weevil's most recent album, The Teaser, was named one of 2012's 10 best blues albums by the British music magazine MOJO.
The Memphis area is well-represented in this year's contest. The Memphis Blues Society is sponsoring acts in the band and solo/duo competitions. In the band arena, the Memphis Blues Society entrant is Fuzzy Jeffries & the Kings of Memphis, led by longtime sideman Kevin "Fuzzy" Jeffries, who has backed up traditional soul and blues artists such as Otis Clay, Little Milton, and Bobby Rush. Jeffries is a strong, growly singer and guitarist adept at both rhythmic precision and flash. The band is contemporary electric blues at its most authentic.
In the solo/duo competition, the Memphis Blues Society is putting up Little Boys Blue, a West Tennessee country-blues combo making a return trip after finishing third in the IBC back in 1996. The duo is made up of Jackson-based slide guitarist Steve Patterson and Brownsville harmonica player Jimmy D. Taylor.
The Memphis Blues Society-sponsored competitors aren't the only acts with a strong local connection.
Competing under the banner of the Crossroads Blues Society of Rosedale, Mississippi, is the young Memphis-based sextet the Ghost Town Blues Band, which released its second album, Dark Horse, last year on the local Inside Sounds label. Deploying instrumentation that ranges from a two-man horn section to cigar-box guitars, this band draws from Memphis' roots-blues and soul heritages.
And Leslie, Arkansas' Buffalo River Blues Society is sponsoring David Kimbrough, son of the late north Mississippi blues legend Junior Kimbrough.
Among the many ancillary events happening around the IBC, here are some potential highlights:
A. Schwab on Beale will be hosting midday "Talking the Blues" conversations with notable local blues scholars. These occur from 10 a.m. to noon each day.
On Wednesday, January 30th, the featured guest is author Robert Gordon, who penned the Muddy Waters biography Can't Be Satisfied. On Thursday, it's folk and country blues musician Andy Cohen. On Friday, it's University of Memphis musicologist and performer David Evans.
At the Hard Rock Café on Thursday, Danish harmonica master Lee Oskar — of the '70s rock-funk group War — will conduct a workshop on the instrument. At 1:30 p.m. at the Hard Rock, crossover blues star Keb' Mo' will perform as part of a rally for the "Raise the Roof" capital campaign to build a Blues Hall of Fame as part of the Blues Foundation.
Also on Thursday, from noon to 5 p.m., the Memphis-based Blind Raccoon firm will host their annual IBC showcase at Purple Haze, adjacent to the Westin Hotel, which will be highlighted by the pairing of Memphis harmonica great Billy Gibson and flamboyant Mississippi-blues guitarist Vasti Jackson.
International Blues Challenge
Wednesday, January 30th-Saturday, February 2nd
Quarterfinals and semifinals: various Beale Street venues Wednesday-Friday
Finals at the Orpheum Theatre: Saturday, 11 a.m.
Full festival pass: $100
For more information, see blues.org.