A year ago, I spent a night club-hopping on Beale Street during a qualifying round of the International Blues Challenge, the mammoth annual "battle of the bands" sponsored by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. I saw more than a dozen disparate blues hopefuls. And when I went back for the final round of competition, the best and most interesting artist I'd seen — soul-schooled Canadian representative Harrison Kennedy — was nowhere to be found.
History repeated itself this year. Once again, the most impressive and promising performer I saw in five hours on Beale Street during a Thursday-night quarterfinals round — Memphis' own Valerie June — was nowhere to be found for Saturday night's solo/duo finals at the Orpheum.
There was one interesting twist, however. While June was wrongly denied her place on the finals stage — more on this in a bit — the best artist in the finals was a familiar face: Kennedy, who ended up with a second-place award in the solo/duo category.
I apparently wasn't alone in my surprise at Kennedy's snub a year ago. I subsequently found out from a couple of event insiders that Kennedy not making the finals at the 2010 contest generated a bit of controversy. Encouraged by his home blues society, Ontario's Canal Bank Shuffle, to give the event another go, Kennedy won his local contest and made the trip this year for a second IBC appearance.
Hoping to catch up with Kennedy during the Thursday-night quarterfinals, I headed over to his grouping at the Westin hotel bar about 20 minutes before his scheduled set, only to find out that the schedule was running early and that he'd just finished playing. I wasn't the only disappointed party. Over the next half-hour, a stream of IBC attendees came into the Westin to see Kennedy, many of them finding him in the crowd to express their disappointment. One of the disappointed was Finnish guitar slinger Jo' Buddy. I'd just seen him play a fine set at Blues Hall, and his stripped-down guitar style, with elements of both rockabilly and ragtime, would have brought welcome diversity to the finals.
Seeing my notebook, Jo' Buddy wandered up to me at the bar to ask when Kennedy was going to play. Finding out he'd missed him, the young musician looked crushed.
"That's the only reason I came here," he said, in somewhat halting English, and I got the sense he might have meant the International Blues Challenge itself. "I've been a fan for years."
If it turned out that my discovery of a year ago has a bigger fan base than I realized, Kennedy's finals performance demonstrated why.
A member of the '70s R&B band Chairmen of the Board (best known for "Give Me Just a Little More Time"), Kennedy has morphed into a dapper, acoustic bluesman. He opened his set standing, accompanying himself only with maracas and showcasing a vocal style whose non-verbal flourishes at times suggest doo-wop or beat-box. Moving to guitar, Kennedy stood out from his competitors with his dynamic vocal range, storytelling skill, palpable good humor, songwriting that takes socially relevant '70s soul back to its blues roots, and a complete lack of corny or self-conscious genre touches.
The rest of the eight finalists in the solo/duo contest fell well short of Kennedy and probably a little short of last year's finalists. The first-prize winners were George Schroeter and Marc Breitfelder, a piano/harmonica duo representing the Baltic Blues Society. I'd seen Schroeter and Breitfelder Thursday night at Silky O'Sullivan's and enjoyed their set, but I didn't expect them to be finalists, much less winners. The duo's quieter musicality stood out from their American peers and they had a genial charm about them, but they lacked the charisma you'd hope for in a winning act.
The other six contenders were accomplished but unremarkable variations on modern blues-scene staples: classic-rock-rooted guitarists (West Virginia's Izzy and Chris; Houston's the Mighty Orq, which would be my choice for the finals' second-best act), grizzled trad-blues vets (Massachusetts' Juke Joint Devils; Washington's Back Porch Stomp), and piano-driven bar-blues acts (Colorado's Big Jim Adam & John Stilwagen; Pennsylvania's JT Blues).
As a young African-American woman, Valerie June would have added demographic elements to the IBC stage Saturday night that it sorely lacked. Among the 13 musicians in the competition, there was one African-American (Kennedy), zero women, and maybe two musicians under the age of 40.
But beyond what her presence would have represented, June also would have added a more idiosyncratic brand of artistry to a competition/scene constantly warding off the stale.
Her music perhaps a little more rooted in country and folk than blues, June nevertheless emphasized her blues side at her Thursday quarterfinals set at Club 152, opening with Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" before segueing into her own "No Drawers Blues" and making reference to heroes such as Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
"She was a beautiful woman, if you ask me," June said of Tharpe. "I love seeing a big, beautiful black woman with a smile on her face. Playing guitar. Getting down."
That's a vision of the blues in too-short supply.
Theoretically, an event like the International Blues Challenge should be about sorting through the hobbyists, re-enactors, showbiz pros, and other limited enthusiasts to pick out the true artists. Past winners such as Richard Johnston, Eden Brent, and Zac Harmon — not to mention runner-up Kennedy — prove that the IBC often accomplishes this. But the solo/duo finals lineup this year felt more like the judges and blues society members were holding a mirror up to reflect a fan base seemingly rooted in classic-rock-reared white boomers.
The safety and homogeneity of the finalists was a telling representation of a once-world-conquering musical genre turned into a relatively self-contained niche that rarely drifts into the wider pop world.
For that reason, the most vibrant new blues-based artists of the past decade or so — Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, the North Mississippi Allstars, even Jack White — have tended to function outside the boundaries of the contemporary blues scene. And so it is with June.
If a contest like the International Blues Challenge wants to truly discover new talent and to be relevant to those outside of the blues-society members it immediately serves, it needs outside-the-club artists like June a lot more than artists like June need the IBC.
Moving forward, June will perform at the International Folk Alliance conference here and at Austin's South By Southwest Music Festival in March. In between, she'll head to Los Angeles to record essentially her debut studio album with Norah Jones producer Craig Street, a session financed by a successful $15,000 Kickstarter campaign last fall. Though she was bypassed for the finals, June did have preliminary discussions with one label head at the IBC about putting out the record.
Having missed the band finals and only seen one of the eight chosen acts — the entertaining, trombone-heavy Randy Oxford Band — during my quarterfinals wanderings, I can't judge whether Memphis' other IBC entry, Vince Johnson & the Plantation Allstars, deserved to be there. But they were quite good on Thursday night at the New Daisy Theatre. The band's sound is generic compared to the likes of June, but there's nothing wrong with generic blues when played with as much groove, grit, and stage presence as this band had. As to those who did make the final cut in the band competition, congratulations are in order to first-place winners the Lionel Young Band from Colorado, second-place finishers the Mary Bridget Davies Group from Kansas City, and third-place finishers Rob Blaine's Big Otis Blues from Chicago. Blaine also won the competition's Albert King Award for most promising guitarist.