Memphis will host the 30th International Blues Challenge (IBC) this weekend. The event started on Tuesday and concludes Saturday, January 25th, at the Orpheum. The contest is a mainstay of downtown, a boon to the local economy, and a source of fun and community for folks from all over the world.
"There's going to be a lot of people in town," said Joe Whitmer, deputy director of the Blues Foundation. "That's the big thing: how much people out of Memphis really love coming to Beale Street and hearing the blues. That's always exciting. And it's the time of the year to walk into any club on Beale and hear blues music."
Those people come from all over the world, from 14 countries, in fact. Blues may seem obscure to those who don't listen to the genre in the age of electronic dance music. But there is a dogged fan base around the world. And by all measures, it appears to be growing.
"We've got 14 countries represented this year," Whitmer said. "The latest is from Colombia. They are our newest affiliate. The international affiliates continue to grow by leaps and bounds. We've got more people coming in earlier and staying later, which is great for all of Memphis, specifically downtown. We've sold more tickets year-to-date than we did last year. That's a record."
Whitmer attributes the success to the community of players and listeners who follow the genre around the globe but hold Memphis special.
"[It's] the importance that up-and-coming blues musicians put on being part of the community of blues and the community of blues organizations," he said. "They want to make as much money as they can. So they see the opportunity to come to Memphis as a way not only to show off their skills but to pick up more skills. I think just the artists getting together locally probably promotes the vibe to come to Memphis."
Bands will compete for more than $40,000 in cash and prizes. They will play clubs on Beale and compete for the finals that will be held Saturday at the Orpheum. The high stakes are part of what drives the growth and the development of the genre.
"We have several acts that have come over years. They continue to grow. But their support and their fan base grow. All of this comes together in getting to IBC in the first place."
I'm not gonna lie. When the prospect of French blues came across the desk, I curled my lip like any Gallic boulevardier looking at a fat Kansan mouth-breathing in jogging shorts. Quelle horreur!
But Manu Lanvin was a pleasant surprise. Lanvin is able to dodge the clichés and be authentically French while working within the blues idiom. Lanvin's sound has elements of pop that are not necessarily pure blues. But he synthesizes several key aspects of the music in an interesting way. On his 2011 album Faible humain, Lanvin keeps the energy up. "Je suis une machine" is a rollicking number that hurls forward along a road or a rue in a way that much contemporary, European, synth-driven pop just can't. There's something magic in the fast mess of blues time: something akin to sneaking around or running from the consequences of sneaking around. Lanvin also excels at rendering the tone palette of blues. His guitar tones are idiosyncratic like they should be. He's not aping the classics. He's comfortable in his skin.
Carlos Elliot Jr. and the Cornlickers hail from Colombia, but he sounds like he's from Holly Springs. The hill-country vein seems to get less attention than it deserves. There's something lively in that rhythm that Chicago didn't want. We're glad to keep it warm down here, and it's inspiring to see it affect people of different cultures. Elliot's guitar phrasing has that half-cocked madness of R.L. Burnside, and Muddy Waters' solo style is apparent too: feel and intensity take precedence over technique — like it should.
Memphis is represented in the band division by the Ghost Town Blues Band — who were finalists last year — and by D&G Boogie BLUES in the solo/duo competition. The STAX Music Academy will compete in the youth competition. Lucious Spiller is another entrant with hometown ties.
Whoever wins, Memphis benefits from this gathering and its respect for our regional culture. Welcome to Memphis, everybody. Enjoy your stay.
The International Blues Challenge continues this week. Quarterfinals are Wednesday and Thursday night on Beale. Youth Showcase and semifinals are on Friday night. The finals are Saturday night at the Orpheum Theater. For more information, visit blues.org.