There's been plenty of controversy in recent years about the centrality of blues music on Beale Street, but all that takes a hiatus this week as hundreds (do I hear thousands?) of blues lovers descend on Memphis for the 25th annual International Blues Challenge, an amateur blues contest and talent search conducted each February by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation.
Starting Thursday, February 5th, nearly 200 blues acts from across the U.S. and around the globe will compete in clubs up and down Beale Street, culminating in finals on Saturday at The Orpheum.
The talent competition is the centerpiece of a sprawling weekend of blues-related activities, including seminars, the annual "Keeping the Blues Alive" awards presentation, and a bundle of noncompetition concert events.
In the IBC, competing bands, solo artists, and duos are sponsored by blues societies affiliated with the Blues Foundation. The acts will be broken into small groups for semifinals on Thursday and Friday night at more than a dozen Beale Street venues. Semifinals start between 5 and 6 p.m. each night with a $10 wristband giving fans entry to all events each night.
Finals are Saturday at the Orpheum. Band finals run from 2 to 7 p.m. ($30), and solo/duo finals start at 8:30 p.m. ($25).
In addition, this year the Blues Foundation has added showcases for international bands and youth musicians. The international showcase, which is slated to feature bands from Israel, Italy, and Croatia, among other far-flung locations, is at Alfred's on Beale from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday. The youth showcase, also on Friday and featuring musicians under age 21, runs from 1 to 4 p.m. at B.B. King's, The Pig on Beale, and Blues City Café. Both events are free.
The 25th IBC is set to begin with a kickoff concert Wednesday, February 4th, at the New Daisy Theater featuring past winners such as last year's Trampled Under Foot, Zac Harmon, the Homemade Jamz Blues Band, and the Sean Carney Band.
Blues fans can also catch other past IBC winners at other noncompetition concerts. Mississippi-based pianist/singer Eden Brent (a 2006 winner) will perform at a Yellow Dog Records showcase at King's Palace Cafe, which starts at 12:30 p.m. on Friday. She'll be joined by labelmates such as Memphian William Lee Ellis and Aussie Fiona Boyes. Brent also performs in the Orpheum lobby at 1 p.m. Saturday before the band finals.
Local company Blind Raccoon presents a "Roots & Blues Showcase" during the day Friday at the Rum Boogie Café. The event runs from noon to 4:30 p.m. and features artists such as Memphis harmonica master Billy Gibson, Mississippi blues fave Super Chikan, local country/folk singer-songwriter Kim Richardson, and many more. The concert is hosted by WEVL's Brett Fleming. Late-night at Rum Boogie Friday and Saturday, after the competition is over, blues legend and former Muddy Waters sideman Bob Margolin takes over.
The next night, if you aren't attending the finals at the Orpheum, you can catch the Big City Rhythm and Blues Showcase at the Memphis location of the Ground Zero Blues Club, featuring Beale stalwart Preston Shannon and also starring past IBC winner (at least until he lost on a technicality) Joey Gilmore and others. The show runs from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Cover is $15.