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Why I Attend in the International Blues Challenge Every Year

For five days between January 31st and 4th February this year, visitors to Memphis painted the town blue. More than 3,000 music fans descended on the city for the 33rd International Blues Challenge, or IBC. And the footsteps of blues artists from 38 states and 14 countries fell on Beale Street – the pulse point of the annual extravaganza.

I have had the privilege of being a volunteer judge in the quarter finals, semi finals and finals of both the solo/duo and band competitions for many years. I go for the music, the camaraderie, the networking with musicians, fans, blues society folks and music business folks, the pleasure of giving back to a community which I have been a part of nearly all my life, and of course the schmoozing, the beer and barbecue.

The IBC is a World Class Event for Aspiring Blues Musicians, Supporters, Fans, Music Business Folks and Lovers of Blues in All Its Variants

The IBC as it is known, is a premier blues networking event and club hopping festival. And it is extremely cheap to hear so much music and attend so many related events. One nightly wrist band or an inclusive weekend ticket gets folks into everything except the Keeping the Blues Alive Awards brunch, which is ticketed separately. The only time in close to 20 years that I can recall missing it is when Honeyboy Edwards and I got stuck in Los Angeles at the end of a tour and could not fly back to Chicago in time, so I could go to Memphis for the IBC.

Run by The Blues Foundation, the International Blues Challenge was established to give emerging Blues talent the chance to perform on the international stage and to make great networking connections. Every year, artists compete across six categories to take home the titles of:

  • Best Band
  • Best Solo/Duo
  • Best Solo Guitar
  • Best Band Guitar
  • Best Harmonica Player, and
  • Best Self Produced CD

Getting Attention From the Eyes of the International Blues Community

Making the most of the opportunities to connect with folks in the global blues community is what sets happy and successful participants apart from grumpy, disgruntled musicians who do not win the competition. Winning is the icing on the cake, important for the good gigs and prizes, but not the most valuable prize.

Some very successful musicians nowadays did not make it to the finals, but they leveraged their participation in the International Blues Challenge. Working the crowd by walking into the audience from the stage is just one way to grab a bigger audience. For example, just meeting someone who can help you or guide you, through your self introduction or through someone introducing you often happens at this event. Many of us love to connect folks, but we do not want to be pitched on the street. If we like you as an artist or as a person, we may go out of our way to introduce you, or to tell someone about you, such as a talent buyer or label head, when you may not even know that we did so.

History of the International Blues Challenge

The origins of the IBC can be traced back to 1984, when it ran under the name of the “Blues Amateur Talent Contest.” Since then, the event has erupted and in addition to the title competitions, activities like master classes, jams, and blues parties take place in venues around the city. Even further back in blues history, the Daisy Theater on Beale, now known as the Old Daisy, was the scene for many years of an Amateur Night.

Every night of the festival, Beale Street is alive with activity. There are bands and solo/duo acts competing from all over the world in bars and venues on and just off Beale Street for the 3 nights, with professional bands each night after the competition ends every night around 11:00 pm. There is also a pro jam Friday and Saturday night, which I have had a lot of fun playing harmonica on a few times.

The last few years guitarists Jon Del Toro Richardson from Houston, Texas and Sean Carney from Columbus, Ohio have done a fabulous job running it. The bars purr, twang and thunder with the sounds of guitars and harmonicas. The street’s neon signs don’t go out until the early hours and BBQ is available all over Beale until late. The event is capped off by the finals on Saturday afternoon into the early evening, followed by another round of late night club hopping.

IBC’s Keeping the Blues Alive Awards

Another very special event is the Keeping the Blues Alive Awards (KBA) brunch on Saturday morning. I was moved and proud of being honored in 2007 with the KBA in Artist Management, for all my years working with David Honeyboy Edwards. I am always surprised that so few competing musicians and their supporters attend this brunch, because every KBA Recipient past and present is a mover and shaker in the blues world, someone who has done significant blues work for most of their adult life.

This event is one of the best places to just find out and to meet such accomplished blues luminaries. It is not the place, however, to pitch oneself, rather just to support and connect with such committed folks. I have learned a lot about a lot of folks at the Keeping the Blues Alive Awards brunch, and met many folks whose accomplishments I have known about throughout my blues career and even before, when I was a fan, a kid collecting blues lps.

Other International Blues Challenge Highlights

During the morning and early afternoons Wednesday through Friday before the competition starts each day, there are music business panels, topical discussions, film spotlights, and artist showcases by publicists and labels. These are great opportunities to walk around in the area, learn something and visit with friends and soon to be friends from all over the world. Many musicians and their backers have made great contacts at this event, booking tours, festival gigs, record deals.

Hawkeye Herman and I met some folks from the East Coast Blues Society in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2015 and they booked us up there for 4 nights in the fall of 2016. We did a house concert, a library concert, a film showing of Honeyboy and the History of the Blues, a discussion and a music business workshop which I presented. Hawkeye taught a course to school teachers on Teaching Blues In the Schools.

Another highlight this year was a panel on Blues as a Healing Force, with musicians Kenny Neal and Walter Trout and journalist Don Wilcock as panelists. Their stories were quite powerful and moving. Another highlight, done for the first time this year, was a round robin, speed dating type event, for musicians mainly, to talk for 10 minutes at a time with music business professionals about anything in their career they wanted input or help. I participated as a mentor, and felt encouraged by the level of commitment of those folks who came to my table. Some of the musicians were doing a better job managing their own careers than some of the managers and agents I know. Hopefully the participants feel they got a lot out of the experience. I certainly did.

During the course of its 33 years the IBC has played host to some eye-watering talent. Past performers have included Grammy Award winner Susan Tedeschi and also Sean Costello, whose short but sweet career saw him play alongside Blues luminaries like BB King and James Cotton.

Visitors to the IBC say that the festival one-ups itself every year as far as talent is concerned. This year Dawn Tyler Watson took the Best Band trophy. Described as ‘one of Canada’s true Blues treasures’ by Blues Music Magazine, Dawn is known for her sass and incandescent stage presence. To date her career has seen her share the stage with premiere artists like Koko Taylor, Jeff Healey and Cyndi Lauper. National and international festival headliners who got a huge boost from competing, sometimes winning and some not even making it to the finals, include:

  • Zac Harman
  • Grady Champion
  • Jarekus Singeton
  • Susan Tedeschi
  • Shakura S’Aida
  • Tim Williams, and
  • Matt Anderson

The 2017 Best Solo/Duo prize went to Al Hill, a gritty soulful artist, best known for his role as music director for Bettye LaVette. The Best Self Produced CD title, meanwhile, was won by JW Jones, representing the Central Iowa Blues Society, and its album Blues In A Bottle.

IBC 2018: See You There!

The 2018 International Blues Challenge will take place around the start of February. Exact dates are to be announced. If there’s ever an excuse to block book some vacation time, this has got to be it. I will be there, and hope to see you on Beale. Give me a shout out!  I’ll look forward to seeing you on the Blues Highway.