While the Great Freeze of 2018 trapped much of Memphis under a thin sheet of ice, Beale Street blazed with the best blues riffs as musicians from the world over came to town for a chance to win bragging rights as the best in the blues business. Each year for 34 years running, the Memphis-based Blues Foundation has brought the most talented musicians from its affiliate organizations to the Bluff City to compete in the International Blues Challenge
(IBC). After the finalists showdown at the Orpheum Theatre wraps it up tonight, the VizzTone’s Blues Party on Beale will get started at the Rum Boogie Cafe and won’t end until late, as befits the celebratory cap-off shindig for the Blues Foundation’s signature event.
Returning blues band and 2018 semifinalists Rochelle & the Sidewinders, from Austin, shed a little light on the typical IBC contender's story and experiences at the IBC.
The Sidewinders wound up in Memphis at the IBC for the first time in 2017, when the relatively new group, fresh off some contest wins in Texas, felt sure they would come away from the IBC with some great memories and an easily won trophy to take back to Texas. “I would say we were overly cocky, if I had to summarize,” says Sidewinders guitarist and founding member Tom Coplen. “And when we got there, we just weren’t prepared. We were a new band. We’d just formed in 2015, and we missed the cut-off that year. The Austin Blues Society is the sponsoring affiliate here in Austin, and they have a contest every year … the Heart of Texas Blues Challenge,” Coplen says. “The winner of that gets to go to the IBC. We won it last summer.”
Coplen says the prestige of the affirmation of the Austin Blues Society so early in their career — not to mention the rich blues tradition in Texas — contributed to the Sidewinders’ hubris their first time at the IBC. “And Austin kind of has a history. You go back to T. Bone Walker and Charlie Christian and these guys. The history of music, and specifically blues, is so entrenched here and so strong, literally you could be at a pizza place and the guy serving pizza used to play with Stevie Ray Vaughan in high school. There are just so many bands and so many musicians, that we just thought we were going to go there and win. That’s how ridiculous we were.”
Of course, this is Memphis, a Mecca of the blues, and we have our fair share of drink-slinging or package-delivering blues legends. And the IBC is an international competition that brings talent from 200 different cities to compete. Needless to say, Rochelle and the Sidewinders did not do quite as well as they expected. Coplen says the band didn’t make it past the first round. “My friend Jim [Trimmier], the sax player, said ‘the crowd’s gonna love us; the judges aren’t,’” Coplen says. But the band wasn’t discouraged. Coplen took in a lot of the talent in his time in Memphis, and he reasoned that maybe the judges would have appreciated a stricter take on blues traditions.
Originally, The Sidewinders were a little “newer” sounding. They had a dance edge that complimented the vocal talents of their singer, Rochelle Creone. “I’ve had various incarnations of [the band], but it wasn’t until I found Rochelle that the band really worked. She’s just this amazing vocalist.” So, a little disappointed but not discouraged by their loss at the 2017 IBC, Coplen and his band of Austin blues players enjoyed Memphis, learned, and modified their expectations. And watched a lot of other blues bands do their wailing, shredding, and sliding.
Coplen wrote new songs, and the band kept chugging along through 2017, earning them their second win at the Heart of Texas Blues Challenge, which again opened the door to their second invitation to the IBC. “The music we’re playing, it’s straight, hard Chicago blues,” Coplen adds. “The old adage about doing the same thing twice is our [guide]. We’re not cocky, we just want to go and have fun.”
The work, the new songs, and the humbler attitude seem to have paid off. Rochelle and the Sidewinders made it to the semifinals at this year’s IBC. They played to a packed house at Club 152, and though they didn’t make it to the finals, Coplen says the band enjoyed themselves. “Our experience was fun, and we loved it. All the people were so nice; we just love Memphis,” Coplen says. “This year our perspective is we’re just so happy and honored to be able to go again. Just to be able to go twice in a row is amazing. We’re just happy to be able to go play.”
The 34th International Blues Challenge Finalist Competition is being held today, Saturday, January 20th, starting at noon at the Orpheum Theatre. The Bob Margolin Presents VizzTone’s Blues Party on Beale takes place tonight, once IBC competition ends, at the Rum Boogie Cafe. All proceeds benefit Generation Blues