The Handy Awards get more attention, and perhaps justly so, but the International Blues Challenge, a sort of amateur talent search, might be the Memphis-based Blues Foundation's most interesting event. The 20th IBC will take place this weekend on Beale Street, with more than 90 acts from across the U.S. and around the world (this year's field includes bands from Israel and the Republic of Georgia) competing for $25,000 in prizes, including a performance slot on April's Handy bill and instant name recognition across the blues world.
Semifinals competition will be held Thursday, January 29th, and Friday, January 30th, in clubs along Beale, with a $10 wristband available for entry into all participating venues. The solo finals will be held Friday night at The Pig on Beale, while the big prize, the band finals, will be decided Saturday, January 31st, at the New Daisy Theatre, with a $15 cover.
Local acts have performed well in the past. Richard Johnston won the contest three years ago and became an overnight sensation on the blues circuit. Two years ago, traditionalist three-piece The Handy Three made a classy addition to the contest's finals. There was no local entrant last year, but that's been corrected for this year's contest. Silky O'Sullivan's staple Barbara Blue, whose new album 3rd & Beale gets a proper release next month, will be competing, sponsored by the Center for Southern Folklore, and relative newcomer and regular local club fixture Robert Allen Parker, who has an eponymous album out co-produced by blues-scene stalwart Brad Webb, will be representing the Smokey Mountain Blues Society.
Those looking for a snapshot of the diverse world of contemporary blues can't do much better than this weekend in Memphis, and the music is sure to spill out beyond Beale. The Israeli entrant, SOBO, which is sponsored by an organization called Blues for Peace, will be performing a 2 p.m. set Thursday at the Center for Southern Folklore.
If you're looking for a chance to hear live music for free, Cooper-Young is the place to be on Wednesday nights. Over at Last Chance Records -- which moved a few months ago from its relatively high-profile storefront on Cooper to a larger but more hidden space in the former Seraphim Rose bookstore at 2074 Walker -- manager Brian Venable has started an informal Wednesday-night in-store performance series.
Venable began bringing in local artists for acoustic sets a month ago, with Cory Branan, the Reigning Sound's Greg Cartwright, and the Glass's Brad Bailey having performed in recent weeks. Venable will continue the series with Holly Cole on January 28th, Lucero's Ben Nichols (a former bandmate of Venable's, who was a founding member of the band) on February 4th, Tim Prudhomme and Harlan T. Bobo on February 11th, and Snowglobe's Tim Regan on February 18th. Sets usually start around 7 p.m. and are being recorded by Venable for possible use in a planned "Live at Last Chance" compilation. You can call Last Chance at 272-7922 for more info.
And after that, live-music fans can head a couple of blocks north to Young Avenue Deli, where manager Mike Smith has started the "On the Road" series, which brings out-of-town touring bands into the club for free Wednesday-night shows. Shows are scheduled to start at 10 p.m., with no local openers.
"The idea was for people to be able to come in, have dinner, have a couple of beers, see a live band, and still be able to get home by midnight," says Smith, who also mentions that the series is a way to develop these largely unknown bands in the Memphis market.
Smith currently has "On the Road" shows booked through mid-March (a March 17th booking of popular Chicago indie-rockers Trans Am will have the series on at least a one-week hiatus). The current schedule is as follows: Pop-rockers Bishop Allen, whose 2003 debut Charm School got a four-star review in Rolling Stone, on January 28th; Rhode Island alt-country band Barn Burning on February 4th; Houston four-piece Scattered Pages on February 11th; Chicago art-punk trio The Audreys, whose recent debut was produced by Ivan Julian of Richard Hell & the Voidoids fame, on February 18th; and singer-songwriter Jen Foster rounds out next month's schedule on February 25th.