The International Blues Challenge in Memphis is like a week-long weekend, where everyone gets to enjoy a smorgasbord of great music, friends, food, booze and networking. All this fun is dropped in the middle of historic neon-lit Beale Street and surrounded by warm Southern culture and hospitality. My favorite part was the sense of wonder and discovery I felt every day when I heard a new artist, savored a new flavor, met a new friend.
My first stop on Beale was Club 152 for the Pacific Northwest Showcase. It sounded like home as I came around the corner and heard the sweet soulful sound of Sammy Eubanks. I walked in and was greeted by a bunch of my favorite faces from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and B.C. Later I met several new friends, including Rockin’ Johnny from Chicago, Bob-O from Wisconsin, and first-timers Connie and Steve, some stylish jammers from Kansas City. We owe many thanks to our South Sound, Cascade, and Washington Blues Societies for a stellar lineup.
During the week I heard SO MANY great artists: Alabama’s Jamell Richardson from the Gulf Coast Blues Society played some killer R&B at B.B. Kings. Zack Day & Full Throttle from Indiana held court at Rum Boogie and Phil Bee’s Freedom from The Dutch Blues Society was impressing at the 152. I was originally introduced to T.C. Carr by Jim McLaughlin at his Freedom Fest on Ebey Island, and was happy to hear this extraordinary harmonica man in Memphis. I also thoroughly enjoyed Guitarist Ori Naftaly’s new line-up, Southern Avenue, who represented the Memphis Blues Society. Lead singer, Tierinii Jackson recalled the best of a young Tina Turner, climbing the octaves with her powerful pipes and shimmering sexiness. T his is a band to watch!
The National Women in Blues (WiB) Showcase hosted by Michele Seidman is a must-see feature of the IBC and this year they moved from the smaller Center for Southern Culture (which I personally adore) to a more visible venue on Beale Street, Alfred’s. It’s going to be even more visible soon since The Smithsonian was there to document the event and interview all the female artists in the room.
The WiB showcase had a standing-room only crowd for the 4-hour event, opening strong with Queen Delphine, a blues belter from Indianapolis. It was a real treat to see Divas on Fire, a compilation of nine women (and one man) most of whom front their own bands. What a hotbed of talent. My experience would not have been complete without witnessing the power and the glory that is Crystal Tucker, AKA Redd Velvet, preaching the blues and giving her one-woman history lesson on why we have the blues. The room was silent as she brought the human heartbreak of slavery into the present, and reminded us the blues was the antidepressant and antipsychotic that kept her people from losing their minds. She eventually brought it around to thank everyone who is keeping the blues alive. I personally want to thank Crystal for keeping the history of the blues alive.
Of course, many of us were in town to support all our NW competitors and pals, including the James Howard Band, Sisters of Mercy, King Kom Beaux, Brian Feist & Doug Scoog, and Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons. Y’all know I saw something special in Hunter & Seamons, who also help keep our blues history alive and well. I can’t express how my heart was filled to bursting when the Blues Foundation called their names as the solo-duo winners at the final show on Saturday. I caught every performance of theirs that week, and the show at the Orpheum was heartfelt and flawless. The thing about Ben and Joe is, they were just enjoying themselves. They didn’t appear too concerned or competitive, but seemed to really love meeting new people and hearing new music, as did so many of us. With their unique spin and fresh take on traditional folk blues, they seemed to embody the best of what this event has to offer, and I believe many agreed with that assessment.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Delgado Brothers, who swept the Awards for Best Band and Most Promising Guitar Player. I’m originally from Southern California and the Delgados have been an L.A.-based band for about 40 years, so it was a very emotional day for this writer. Many Northwest folks have gotten to know and love them in the past few years as they’ve played local festivals and gigs around Seattle and Tacoma. Catch them at the Sunbanks Music Festival this May in Electric City!
Every night was ended in celebration by dancing at one of the crowded local jams, most especially at Purple Haze hosted by those kooky Canadians, Marshall Lawrence and David Mathews, and at that smoky and smokin’ Jerry Lee’s with Tacoma’s own Billy Barner and Joe Hendershot.
This trip was made even sweeter by meeting the many folks who make Memphis hum, from the sugary baristas at the Memphis airport Starbuck’s, to the trolley driver who introduced us to a well-known local chef, to our uber-fun Uber Driver, Amy, who gave us a private tour of the Stax Museum her family founded. This experience of extreme friendliness was repeated over and over again wherever we went. People were incredibly welcoming and helpful, and truly, besides the opportunity to hear multiple bands play magnificent music, the people are what made this an indelible experience. Can’t wait for next time.
(Thank you Washington Blues Society for sharing publication in the March 2016 Bluesletter.)