Blues You Can Use 

Solomon Burke headlines this year's Handy Awards, and the music spills out onto Beale.

Larger-than-life soul legend Solomon Burke's comeback coronation continues this week as he performs at the 24th Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards Thursday, May 22nd, at The Orpheum. Sponsored by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, these "blues Grammys" have become the genre's signature contemporary honor and are looking to gain more stature during this year's congressionally mandated "Year of the Blues." And Burke is the draw. One of the few contemporary performers under the blues umbrella with a wide audience outside that of genre aficionados, Burke's comeback is one of the music industry's biggest stories of the past year.

Though at least a few dissenting critics (this one included) found Burke's all-star-songwriter-driven Don't Give Up On Me a little on the dull side, it was nevertheless one of 2002's great adult-crossover records, its widespread critical, industry, and listener appeal overshadowed only by Grammy darling Norah Jones' even wider acclaim. And if Jones was the Grammy's golden child this year, Burke could be a similar big winner at the Handys. He's nominated for four awards -- Blues Album of the Year, Blues Entertainer of the Year, Soul Blues Album of the Year, and Blues Song of the Year (a Bob Dylan nomination, actually, for "Stepchild").

This year's ceremony will be hosted by three of the genre's most popular veterans -- regional roots fave Delbert McClinton, entertainer extraordinaire Bobby Rush, and Contemporary Female Artist of the Year nominee Marcia Ball. But the rest of the show could well be a showcase of the music's future. Three Best New Artist nominees are slated to perform -- European guitar-slinger Ana Popovic, steel-guitar maestro Robert Randolph, and Memphis' own Richard Johnston. Recent International Blues Challenge winners Delta Moon and Fiona Boyes are also scheduled to play. Adding to the infusion of new blood will be a performance by one of the genre's young giants, twice-nominated Corey Harris (whose Downhome Sophisticate was this critic's favorite blues album of 2002).

In addition to Johnston, Memphis will be well-represented. The late fife master Othar Turner is nominated for Best Instrumentalist Other, while upstart local label Memphis International Records follows their recent Grammy recognition with two nominations, Acoustic Blues Album of the Year for Alvin Youngblood Hart's Down In the Alley (Hart is also up for Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year) and Comeback Blues Album of the Year for Carla Thomas' Live In Memphis.

And the sounds will spill over onto Beale Street Friday night for the Handy Festival, where a $10 wristband will allow fans to hear a number of this year's nominees up close. The biggest bill of the Handy Festival likely takes place at Rum Boogie CafÇ, where quadruple nominee Magic Slim will pair with one-time Muddy Waters sideman Bob Margolin. Fresh off the release of his latest album, All-Star Blues Jam, Margolin has evolved from young gun on the Chicago scene to one of the genre's most respected veterans. His band on the new record boasts such blues luminaries as Carey Bell (harmonica), Pinetop Perkins (piano), Willie Smith (drums), and Hubert Sumlin (guitar). Fans can only hope his band Friday night contains a few of those stars.

Over at Blues Hall, this year's International Blues Challenge winners, Atlanta's Delta Moon, will play. Boasting an eclectic yet traditional sound, Delta Moon bested the competition at IBC with their unlikely mix of taste, skill, and enthusiasm. Another IBC winner, solo performer and Australian Fiona Boyes, will demonstrate how the blues translates down under with her performance at The Pig on Beale.

Best New Artist nominees will also be on hand Friday night: Ana Popovic, whose Hush was recorded locally at Ardent with an all-star lineup of session musicians, will be at Blues City CafÇ, and Nick Moss & the Flip Tops will be at Elvis Presley's Memphis, along with Albert Castiglia.

But those who'd rather hear more established acts won't be disappointed, either. Soul Female Artist of the Year nominee Toni Lynn Washington will celebrate the release of her brand new record, Been So Long, at King's Palace Cafe. Meanwhile, Contemporary Male Artist of the Year nominee Larry Garner will show off his bayou blues at Silky Sullivan's.

For those who don't quite want to brave Beale but still want to get a blues fix Friday night, the Oxford, Mississippi, scene will be well-represented elsewhere. Just down the street at the Lounge, the Kenny Brown Band are set to perform. And in Midtown, at the Full Moon Club, the Burnside Exploration are scheduled to perform.

In all, from award nominees to performers, the Handys will bring together a coalition of contemporary blues performers who range from living legends to young upstarts, artists who are confined by genre to artists who transcend and expand the very idea of "the blues." There should be at least something for any music fan in the mix. As to whether the "Year of the Blues" amounts to more than just hype and wishfulness, fans will have to decide for themselves.

The 24th Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards

The Orpheum

Thursday, May 22nd

The Handy Festival

Beale Street

Friday, May 23rd

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