The Blues Music Awards — scheduled for May 5th at Cook Convention Center — may be the Memphis-based Blues Foundation's most glamorous annual event, bringing together the genre's biggest stars and most established artists under one roof. But the organization's most compelling tentpole event is arguably the International Blues Challenge (IBC), a live talent search of unsigned blues acts that could be the world's biggest battle of the bands. The IBC begins Tuesday, February 1st.
Entering its 27th year, the IBC now brings roughly 200 acts — bands, duos, and solo artists — from the world over to compete at clubs up and down Beale Street, culminating in two final competitions — one for bands, one for duos/solo acts — at the Orpheum Theatre.
Formerly a three-day event, the IBC expands to five days this year by adding an extra layer of competition and by moving the event's returning international showcase to the front of the calendar as a stand-alone kickoff event.
Extending the Competition: "The reason to expand the competition was to accommodate the growing number of acts," says Blues Foundation executive director Jay Sieleman. "The IBC is like a funnel. And because there are only so many hours available at the Orpheum on Saturday and only so many acts the judges can handle [in one setting], only so many acts can make the finals no matter how many we start with."
In the past, the IBC has been a two-round contest, with two-night opening-round heats on Thursday and Friday each feeding one act into Saturday's finals.
This year, there will be three rounds of competition. Quarterfinal heats will take place Wednesday and Thursday with roughly 10 solo/duo acts at each of eight venues and roughly 10 bands at each of 11 venues, each being judged twice. The venues will feed four acts into the semifinals on Friday night — 32 solo/duo acts at four venues and 44 bands at eight venues. Eight acts in each field will advance to Saturday's two-part finals at the Orpheum, with bands competing in the afternoon and solo/duo acts competing at night.
This will be the first year that multiple acts will advance from each opening-round group, which, as Sieleman points out, will account for the possibility that some of the best performers could find themselves competing against each other in the same opening group.
Extending the IBC schedule also makes it a bigger event for the hundreds of visitors traveling to Memphis, in many cases from across the country and overseas.
International Showcase: Before the competition begins in earnest on Wednesday, the International Blues Challenge will underscore its name with an opening-night non-competition showcase of international acts at the New Daisy Theatre on Tuesday night.
"Most of the international acts show up early anyway," Sieleman says. "So as long as they're coming, it makes sense to give them another chance to play. We can't get every international act in the showcase, but the primary thing is that each country is represented."
This year's international showcase will feature 20 acts from 11 countries, among them acts from Australia, Croatia, Israel, and Poland.
Ontario's Harrison Kennedy, a returnee, will be on the bill. The most engaging performer I stumbled upon at last year's IBC, Kennedy is a former member of the '60s soul group the Chairmen of the Board who has transformed into a vocally playful country-blues performer, uniting his soul roots with the gentle acoustic blues style of Mississippi John Hurt.
Another potential highlight of the international showcase is Finland's Jo' Buddy & Down Home King III, a guitar-drum duo whose lo-fi sound is rich with gutbucket electric blues, raw-boned rock, and twisty rockabilly. Not scheduled to be part of the international showcase but worth searching out in competition is Toronto's Carlos del Junco & the Blues Mongrels. Del Junco is a Cuban-born harmonica hotshot with a growing rep who incorporates Latin elements into his music.
Memphis Representatives: Locals will take their shot in the competition this year, represented by the Memphis Blues Society. Vince Johnson & the Plantation Allstars will represent the modern Beale Street sound in the band competition. In the solo/duo field, country/folk/blues performer Valerie June — who has an increasingly impressive knack for turning old influences into a fetchingly modern and personal style — looks to continue her recent upswing with a strong showing. And young harmonica player Brandon O'Neil Bailey will represent Memphis in the non-competition youth showcase, which will serve as the opening act for semifinal sets on Friday.