All Photos By Laura Carbone
The International Blues Challenge, the biggest blues party in the world, took place in the epicenter of blues and soul, Beale Street in Memphis, TN for the 32nd time this January. The nation’s biggest and most respected showcase for blues musicians, the IBC is the produced by The Blues Foundation to help grassroots musicians gain recognition with fans and within the industry. Over 250 acts and 900 musicians sponsored by blues societies throughout world competed for the Best Band and Best Solo/Duo Act of the year.
The party happens in all the bars and clubs in downtown Memphis, with short sets judged by panels of industry professionals while the audience cheers on. Over the course of the week, eliminations thin out the competition to the top eight bands and top eight solo/duo acts, which then compete live at the Historic Orpheum Theater. The final three bands and two solo/duo acts not only get honors and cash, but studio recording time, advertising packages and great festival gigs that include the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise and various national festivals. The long list of past contestants who have gone on to national recognition include Susan Tedeschi, Tommy Castro, Michael Burks, Jarekus Singleton, Albert Castiglia, Albert Cummings, Karen Lovely, Diunna Greenleaf, Zac Harmon, Matthew Skoller, Mr. Sipp, Super Chikan, Eddie Cotton, Matt Anderson, Teeny Tucker, Trampled Under Foot and Watermelon Slim.
This year, the Top Band prize went to the Delgado Brothers, a Latin-flavored blues band with a long performing history from Ventura County; the band’s lead guitarist, Joey Delgado, also earned the “Albert King Award” for best band guitarist. Second place band went to the Montreal power trio of The Paul Deslauriers Band with its impressive lead guitarist; the soul-soaked Norman Jackson Band from Missouri took third place. Other favorites includes a hip young performance band from Memphis, Southern Avenue, The Bobby BlackHat band hit it with classic blues from Virginia, as did a young saxophonist and singer from Pennsylvania, Vanessa Collier. In the Solo/Duo category, Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons from Seattle, WA went traditional Americana/roots style to take first place, and a pair of blind musicians from Ohio called InnerVision, took second. Solo Guitar went to inventive and talented Bing Futch (FL) with a double-necked mountain dulcimer.
It marked a big year for the Blues Foundation, with Barbara Newman stepping in as president and CEO and the opening of the Blues Hall of Fame Museum in Memphis. Other highlights of the IBC’s include the Keeping the Blues Alive (KBA) award ceremony, which honors significant contributions to the blues music world, in journalism, literature and photography, festivals, clubs, managers, promoters and producers. Young blues musicians from Blues in the Schools was represented with over 45 youth bands performing during the week of the IBC’s.
Like all homecoming events, it is also about the scene—to be seen and to witness the great music that happens everywhere in Memphis that week. Blues notables such as Bob Margolin, Victor Wainwright, John Nemeth, Jeff Jenson, Nick Black, Shakura S’Aidia, Janiva Magness, Taz Cru, Karen Lovely, Gracie Curran, Doug Woolverton and Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues performed in the after hour clubs and showcases and mixed with contestants jamming late into the night. During the course of the five-day event, thousands gathered to celebrate the blues and its future performers. Old connections are renewed, new artists gain recognition, life stories are told, and, at the end, a musical family reunites, meeting again along the Blues Highway—more specifically, Beale Street.
– Laura Carbone