Photos by Laura Carbone
Two hundred and sixty blues acts from 14 countries and more than 40 states converged in Memphis to compete in the 33rd International Blues Challenge (IBC) sponsored by the Blues Foundation. Four days of fierce competition left one performer with the accolade of being the first female in 25 years to win Best Blues Band. Dawn Tyler Watson took the title, a singular achievement in an extraordinary career that began on the streets of Montreal. The IBC is one of the Blues scene’s biggest annual events. Past contestants, not all winners, who have gone on to national recognition include Susan Tedeschi, Tommy Castro, Michael Burks, Diunna Greenleaf, Zac Harmon, Mr. Sipp, Matt Andersen, Jarekus Singleton, Albert Castiglia, Trampled Under Foot and Watermelon Slim. The winner gets not only a cash prize, promotional opportunities, ten major festival gigs but also major recognition by the music industry. But, this year’s winner has overcome adversity, including a life-threatening health crisis,that landed her with a triple by-pass operation, less than three months before the competition. Incredibly it made her even stronger and her winning performance at the finals, made the Blues world stand at attention.
Dawn Tyler Watson was a survivor from the get-go. She started her career as a young child in music school. At 13 she dropped out of high school and ran away from a troubled home to begin an extraordinary journey that led from dark side of the streets to graduating from the Jazz program at Concordia University in 1994.
In 1997, Watson had been invited by a local label, Preservation Records, to contribute three songs, two of which she wrote, to a compilation entitled the Preservation Blues Revue. That led to a performance at the world-renowned Montreal Jazz Festival where, as she says, the Blues chose her. Her star on the rise, she quickly became one of Canada’s top Blues performers, releasing her first album, Ten Dollar Dress, to critical acclaim in 2001. Since then, she has won numerous awards. A recipient of three Maple Blues Awards, including two for best female Blues vocalist in Canada, nine Quebec Lyse awards, a Screaming Jay Hawkins Award for Best Live Performance and a Trophee France Blues for International Female Artist of the Year.
Her most recent album, Jawbreaker, was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2017 Maple Blues Awards in Toronto. When she’s not performing at venues across North America and beyond, Watson devotes her time to mentoring troubled youth, teaching Vocal Expression, and singing for residents at local senior citizen homes. When asked to what she attributes her meteoric success, she says, “I am thankful to God and to the angels he’s always put around me.” To emerging artists, she says, “We all have a path. You need to be true to yourself and always love what you do.” As an IBC Award Winner, Watson will be ramping up her international touring schedule, including appearances at multiple festivals such as the Las Vegas Blues Bender and performances on the prestigious annual Blues Cruise.