Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The International Blues Challenge in Memphis

Took a little road trip last week to the Blues Foundation's  International Blues Challenge in Memphis.  Always wanted to go, but always had conflicts or other reasons I couldn't make it.  Not this time!  Pulled into town on Tuesday night and spent the rest of the week on Beale Street checking out the bands, workshops, showcases and of course the food!

 Food seems like a great place to start.  Found myself eating at Blues City Cafe the most.  Although Rendezvous Ribs are the most famous in Memphis, and I do like them a lot, I actually favor the ribs at Blues City Cafe.  They are "wet" ribs and are more "falling off the bone" then Rendezvous.  I love raw oysters but prefer them on the Gulf or ocean, however, Memphis is the northern border of where I will get them, and usually at Silky O'Sullivan's.  For some reason, until this past week, I had never tried the tamales at Blues City Cafe.  I won't put them off again.  They were delicious!

 Saw some people I hadn't seen in a while, and met some nice new people.  I last met Kenny Neal at the Hot August Blues Festival in Aurora, KY in the mid 90s.  As the festival wound down, we sat on a picnic table, had a couple of cold ones and played harmonicas. Such fun.  He's still one of the nicest people I ever met in the blues and has come through his health problems strong. I was asking him how he stayed so young looking and he shared his secret with me.
 Frank Roszak is my publicist.  In my mind, he's the best in the biz.  He won the Foundation's Keeping The Blues Alive Award in 2014 for his work, and he did an outstanding job with our latest album, Rain, which as of this past Monday, recorded it's 28th straight week on the Roots Music Report's Contemporary Blues Chart!  More than 6 months and still going strong.  Thanks Frank!  You're the best and really enjoyed lunch with you!

 Elam McKnight is a great friend in the blues.  For one thing, he lives in my hometown of Trenton, TN. Over the years, we've appeared together on several festival bills.  Love his music, his dedication to the art and his enthusiasm. 
No doubt many of you have seen the youtube videos of the amazing young guitarist known as Christone "Kingfish" Ingram.  I actually saw him live last spring when we played  at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, MS. I believe he's 20 years old now and he keeps getting better! In person he's really a nice young man.  He said he hopes to play more events soon, and I told him I hoped someday I can play as good as him!

Before the competition began, I got to have a little fun playing with some of my friends on Beale Street, Little Boys Blue.  They're a great band out of Jackson, TN.  I've known JD Taylor more than 20 years, and I've known the drummer, Mark Brooks for more than (gulp) 35 years!  They always kill it, and I can't believe I'd never played with them before.  It was a really good time!

I'll be honest.  The bands I saw on the first night of competition were underwhelming.  The most unique band I saw was this one, a German trio of guitar, harmonica and "beat box."  It was refreshing and it was really good! Most of the other bands all had a major flaw.  Either the guitar player was weak, or the singer was weak, or the harp player was weak.  You get it.  The original songs for the most part were also pretty weak. Lot's of cliches, cliches, cliches...

No doubt the most inspirational band I saw was the United By Music North America band.  Kenny Neal helped out.  Kingfish Ingram added some guitar too, and Marlana Vanhoose sang and played.  lf you don't know Marlana's story, read  it here, and listen to her sing here, but I will warn you, you might want to have a tissue ready!

Went to a showing of the movie "Sidemen" Thursday afternoon.  It's the story of Pinetop Perkins, Big Eyes Smith and Hubert Sumlin backing up Blues greats Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.  Great movie.  I'm so fortunate to have met all three before their passing. More than anything I remember those smiles.  The movie needs donations for the rights to be shown nationwide.  Please consider contributing to their Kickstarter fund to help!

Thursday night was the second night of quarterfinal competition and we moved over to Jerry Lee Lewis'.  The bands were MUCH BETTER.  In fact, I thought almost all of them I saw here should have been in the semifinals.  I really enjoyed hearing Laurie Jane and the 45s from the Kentuckiana Blues Society. I appeared on the same bill as them a year or two ago, so I already knew how good they were.  They did a great job.   I thought they should have made the semifinals.

One of the events I went to was a session about Blues Music as a healer and it was really inspirational.  I always thought Walter Trout was a great guitar player, but came away with a newfound respect for him after hearing his story of overcoming not the best of childhoods, years of drug and alcohol abuse and hepatitis C, which almost took his life.  He got a transplant, just in time to save his life, then had to "re learn" now to speak and play the guitar.

The semifinals on Friday night were good music wise, but horrible comfort wise.  It was elbow it was tighter than that.  It was so uncomfortable, I will probably skip the band semifinals in favor of the solo/duo semifinals if I return.  Of course, the whole situation of overcrowding was NOT helped by Garth Brooks 4 night stand at the Fed Ex Forum that week.  That meant a long wait for a table and for food if you dared to eat near Beale between 4:30 and 7pm. Maybe they should look into something to ease the overcrowding on Friday night.  Like so many, I offer NO solutions, just complain about the problem!  Among my favorites on Friday night were Amanda Fish, Polly O'Keary and Akeem Kemp.

After the semis, headed to Rum Boogie for the Vizztone label group showcase.  Great fun. Lot's of talent. I met Rosey Rosenblatt earlier in the week.  Nice man. To be fair, I've also met Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records and he's also very nice and wrote me a very nice note about my music once!

On to the finals on Saturday, which started at 12 and went to about 6:30 for the acts, the presentations around 8pm.  I have to say, I was in complete agreement with the judges!  I thought the winner of the solo/duo, Al Hill, of the Nashville Blues Society was phenomenal, killing it on guitar and especially piano.

In the band competition, I only heard one band which I thought had no business in the finals, and from what I heard, they killed it the previous 2 nights and just picked the wrong night to have a bad night.  I really enjoyed the 3rd place band, The Souliz Band featuring Sugar and Spice from the Suncoast Blues Society.

There was no doubt about the winner though.  Dawn Tyler Watson from the Montreal Blues Society was head shoulders above everyone.  One of the judging criteria is whether the act could headline a blues festival and this band was better than 90% of the headliners I've seen at MAJOR blues festivals.  Unbelieveable.

All in all I had a great week!  Lots of fun, lots of good food, lots of friends.  To be honest, most of the time, I like to stand in the back and kinda watch and listen.  I am rather shy unless I am playing.  This week it was nice to stand in the back and listen to some really good bands! 

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