Fifty unsigned blues bands from all across the country and a few from overseas poured into the clubs on Beale Street last weekend to compete in the Blues Foundation's annual International Blues Challenge, a battle of the bands in which the winner gets to play the Handy Awards, record at Ardent Studios, get booked at several blues festivals, and generally become a viable name on the national blues circuit overnight.
It's a tribute to the foundation's mission of genre preservation and the fine judges they choose (which this year included Memphis International Records co-founder David Less and Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer) that, for the third year in a row (at least, but that's as far back as my familiarity with the contest goes), the IBC has managed to pluck a true diamond out of a rough field of hobbyists, professional entertainers, subgenre-by-numbers strivers, and jam bands in disguise.
At Saturday night's finals at the New Daisy Theatre, all of the above categories except the first (which was properly weeded out in the semifinals) were well-represented, but the winners were the only band that exploded blues convention: Delta Moon, an Atlanta band representing the Charlotte Blues Society. Following local one-man-band Richard Johnston and Detroit avant-roots pranksters Chef Chris and His Nairobi Trio to the top prize, Delta Moon were the most original, and best, band on the stage that night.
A five-piece band driven by the dueling slide guitars of Mark Johnson (electric) and Tom Gray (acoustic) and the charm of lead singer Gina Leigh, Delta Moon stood out from the competition in so many ways: in the variety, subtlety, and good taste of their repertoire, which ranged from gospel sounds to vintage blues predicated on barrelhouse piano or the aforementioned slide; in their refreshing lack of macho posturing and instrumental showing off, elements that afflict far too many contemporary blues bands; in their obvious commitment to blues styles that predate the rock and soul of the Sixties.
They aren't, perhaps, what you'd imagine a great blues band would be: all-white and with a noticeable NPR-ish vibe. Acoustic guitarist and pianist Gray looks more like someone you'd see reading the Sunday Times at the neighborhood coffee shop than a blues player, his professorial bent confirmed by the revelation that he's authored the book Dobro: A Pictorial History. His otherness in relation to the blues world is underscored by the knowledge that this is the same Tom Gray who led Atlanta's seminal alt-rock band the Brains 20 years ago and that he wrote the song "Money Changes Everything," a classic even before Cyndi Lauper made it a hit.
But, in this case, studious and knowing don't equal uptight. Delta Moon came across as a blues version of such roots-centric acts as the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Asylum Street Spankers, except more relaxed and less precious. The clincher is Leigh, who, with her shock of white hair, vintage black-lace dress, and skinny-legs-and-all dancing, was likely the most striking and charismatic frontperson to be seen on Beale all weekend. Sexy at the right moments and playful all the time, Leigh showed a knack for dramatizing the material without overdoing it, and her side-by-side piano routine with Gray was a winner. Imagine Lucinda Williams without the psychodrama or Marcia Ball as a hipster and you'll get a picture of Leigh's roots-icon potential. If the blues industry desires an O Brother-style rebirth in this congressionally proclaimed Year of the Blues, this is a band that can cross over to that crowd. As a semifinals judge Thursday night who helped put them on the big stage, I was happy to see them in the winner's circle.
It's hard to see any of the other bands competing in Saturday's finals winning the genre many new converts. Second place went to Nashville's Stacy Mitchhart, who also took the competition's Albert King Award for most promising guitarist. A quintessential blues showman with a slick suit and even slicker guitar, Mitchhart delivered a strong set and certainly seemed like the most viable act for the standard blues circuit. He showed his range with a faithful version of the O.V. Wright soul standard "Nickel and a Nail" and then some Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque guitar soloing. An Ed McMahonish saxophone sidekick and group of fans in the audience with choreographed dance routines only added to the splendor.
Third place went to Columbus, Ohio's Teeny Tucker and Drivin' Wheel. The daughter of Tommy "Hi-Heel Sneakers" Tucker, the big-voiced and terminally cute Tucker stood out as the only female singer of the night and the only African-American frontperson. Her band's Chicago-style blues was solid but strictly perfunctory.
The only really compelling nonfinishers were the River Babys, representing the Louisiana Blues Preservation Society from Lafayette. A swamp-rock trio with the sound of Creedence and the Southernness of Skynyrd, the River Babys may have been hurt by their questionable "blues content," but they had a great command of their sound and an on-stage camaraderie that was relaxed and natural when so many of the other bands were forced in their presentation.
The other also-rans fit more comfortably into standard contemporary blues subgenres without exploiting those tropes in interesting ways. The Alex Maryol Band, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the Jonny Wayne Shepherd of the evening, Maryol's baby face, long, blond ponytail, and dull guitar soloing leading the mind to wonder whatever happened to those Hanson kids. The blues travelers in Detroit's Mojo & the Boogieman, a favorite of the drunken East Coast louts next to me who screamed "It's rigged!" when Delta Moon won, were jam-friendly blues-rockers with a strong sound and stage presence but entirely conventional. And Phoenix's Bad News Blues Band were the perfect blues band for your next corporate function: slick, professional entertainers with a Blues Brothers-inspired shtick and a drummer who performed Stupid Percussion Tricks, mugging for the crowd while juggling three drumsticks and keeping the beat.