Blues hopefuls from around the globe descend on Beale Street this week for the 28th annual International Blues Challenge, a Blues Foundation event where competitors are sponsored by the foundation's member societies. An overview of what to expect from the event and some of its satellite activities:
The Basics: More than 200 blues acts will compete in this year's competition, the largest ever. Last year, what was formerly a long-weekend event expanded to five days, with an extra layer of competition. That format continues this year. The IBCs had a soft opening Tuesday night at the New Daisy with the FedEx International Showcase. Competition — in band and solo/duo categories — begins in earnest with quarterfinal heats Wednesday and Thursday and semifinals — along with youth showcases — Friday at clubs on and around Beale Street, starting in the late afternoons. Finals competition for bands (2 p.m.) and solo/duo acts (7:30 p.m.) takes place at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday, February 4th. The winner for "Best Self-Produced CD" will be announced during the band finals.
Individual tickets and wristbands are $10 for the quarterfinals, $15 for the semifinals, $22.50 for the solo/duo finals, and $32.50 for the band finals, with larger, multi-event passes also available. Full ticketing info is available at blues.org.
Local Entrants: Memphis scene stalwarts the Daddy Mack Blues Band will be competing this year, representing the Crossroads Blues Society of Rosedale, Mississippi, and will do so with a new album to promote, Pay the Piper, on the local Inside Sounds label.
On Pay the Piper, the Daddy Mack Blues Band proves again that generic isn't necessarily a bad thing. This is not adventurous or novel stuff. The sound is typical bar-band electric blues. The lyrics are often familiarly self-referential ("Sure gonna play the blues tonight," "I bring home the bacon/Put it right in your pan/I'm the workin' man"). But "Daddy" Mack Orr's voice is gruff, warm, and soulful. His companionable rhythm section lays down a confident, lived-in groove. And horns add punch in the Memphis manner. (A nice departure here is "Trickle Down Blues," a jazzy lament with a light-stepping lead vocal from guitarist James Bonner.)
Past history suggests the quality at the IBC is very wide. You could stumble onto something great. You could stumble onto something pretty dire. But the Daddy Mack Blues Band is a reliable act to put on your to-see list.
The Memphis Blues Society is sponsoring acts in both the band and solo/duo contests. Vince Johnson & the Plantation All-Stars represented the Memphis Blues Society in the band competition last year and acquitted themselves very well, though they didn't advance to the finals. They'll take another shot at it this year. In the solo/duo category, West Tennessee country blues combo Blueshine Duo will represent the Memphis Blues Society.
International Flavor: The "International" component of the "International Blues Challenge" seems to grow every year, with many out-of-country visitors showcasing at the New Daisy on Tuesday night before the competition begins. The organization France Blues is bringing three acts to Memphis for the contest: Fred Chapellier in the band category, veteran Cisco Herzhaft in the solo/duo contest, and the trio Jumpin' to the Westside in the youth showcase. Australia's Stevie Paige, who duets with Memphis-connected blues legend Charlie Musselwhite on her latest album, Welcome to the Big Time, and partner Anthony Norris will represent the Australian Outback Blues Society.
Other potentially compelling international entrants include representatives from the Philippines (Bleu Rascals), Spain (Travellin' Brothers), and South Africa (Tony & the Trailer Cats).
Related Shows and Events: Memphis-based blues/roots publicity and marketing company Blind Raccoon will hold a two-day showcase at Superior Bar on Beale. The showcases will take place in the afternoons on Thursday and Friday, before the semifinals kickoff, with most scheduled artists former IBC competitors.
Thursday's lineup begins at 11:45 a.m. with Topeka's Grand Marquis, a 2011 IBC band finalist, and concludes with Kansas City's Levee Town, which was an IBC band finalist in 2007. Friday's lineup also begins at 11:45 a.m., with Brick Fields, a gospel-blues act from the Ozarks that competed in last year's band competition.
The Blind Raccoon headliner Friday afternoon is one of the IBC's most recent success stories, Mississippi's Grady Champion. Champiuon and his band won the IBC band competition in 2010, which he describes as "the best thing that could have happened to me and my band" in the liner notes to his 2011 album, Dreamin', which was co-produced by another former IBC winner, Zac Harmon. Champion will be back in Memphis in May as a nominee for two Blues Music Awards: Soul Blues Album of the Year (where he'll be competing against Memphians the Bo-Keys) and Song of the Year for the Dreamin' track, "Thank You for Giving Me the Blues."
Two late northern Mississippi blues legends will be honored during IBC week. "Mississippi" Fred McDowell and fife & drum master Othar Turner will be given brass notes on Beale Street. The induction ceremony will take place at 3 p.m. On Thursday, February 2nd, inside King's Palace Café. Members of the Turner family are expected to attend. Remarks will be given by David Evans, Judy Peiser, and Dick Waterman.
International Blues Challenge
Quarterfinals and Semifinals
Various Beale Street Venues
Wednesday, February 1st-Friday, February 3rd
Orpheum Theatre, Saturday, February 4th
Full schedule and ticketing info at blues.org.