Marking its 31st year, the International Blues Challenge gets underway Tuesday. The yearly global blues showdown brings wailers and stompers from all over this earth to revel in the music that W.C. Handy codified here and which ran rampant over 20th century popular culture in the form of jazz and rock-and-roll. We are always thrilled to hear the accents and see the bands, solo acts, and youth acts who flood downtown in hopes of taking the big win back home.
Things get rollin' and tumblin' on the evening of Tuesday, January 20th with an international showcase. The quarter finals are Wednesday and Thursday, and the semi finals are on Friday and Saturday. The acts perform throughout the Beale Street Historic District in anticipation of the finals at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, January 24th.
They call it an international affair for a reason. No one can enter this contest directly. Contestants must be sponsored by their local affiliate of the Blues Foundation. Once they have conquered the homeland, acts trek to the Bluff City to see who's got the gutbucket goods. Let's have a look at some of the far-flung entrants.
Since our Memphis In May Festival has chosen to honor Poland as its partner for 2015, we should introduce you to our Polish guests. The affiliate in Poland is the Association of Blues & Rock '70, which sends us Romek Puchowski in the solo-duo category and Two Timer in the band competition.
Krakow to Memphis: 8328 km
Puchowski tunes a steel string acoustic guitar down a step, which adds some chunkier bass and slappier fret noise. He also has an affinity for the Dobro, a steel guitar invented by the Dopyera Brothers in L.A. in the 1920s. The name Dobro is a portmanteau of Dopyera Brothers and also means "goodness" in Slavik languages. Puchowski renders a dark goodness from it with a brass slide. Two Timer has a song called "Ginger Chicks."
Manila to Memphis: 13,580 km
The Glass Cherry Breakers are literally in it for the long haul. Their sound speaks to a love of Ann Peebles and Chicago-style band work. They know about the dynamics curve of turning a song from a whisper-like ember into a run-down-the-street-with-a-can-of-gasoline act of musical arson. It's interesting to see what styles, techniques, and signifiers make the trip around the globe and into music lovers' hearts. But we live in the flat, global environment. The Phillipine Blues Society has a dog in this race.
But don't count out the Blues Asia Network, a society representing groups from Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and other Asian countries. The Brat Pack is another act making the trek from Manila. Find their Soundcloud page and listen to "Brattitude," described as "the signature song of our band, heavily arranged with exciting breaks, and energetic build ups!" Lord, I feel so unnecessary. The Brat Pack has a jumpy, piano-driven sound that could move a room in any hemisphere.
Jerusalem to Memphis: 10,628 km
After the Ori Naftaly Band made their home in Memphis following a semi-final run a few years back, the Israel Blues Society is back with two acts. Papa Blues is a tight band that keeps things moving. Mean Machine will play in the solo-duo section.
Oslo to Memphis: 7,232 km
The Markus Lovdal Band conquered the Norsk Blues Union to get here. So look out for them. They have a jazz-influenced sound that lets the vocalist do the work. There's a little Gregg Allman. There's a little Harry Connick Jr. too. This is a versatile band that could adapt to the competition. So save some of your wagering budget for them. There are not many blues guitarists named Bjørn Ulvik Blix Lein. This is your chance.
Melbourne to Memphis: 15,150 km
John McNamara has a real voice that has a natural grit to it. There is no clownish accent. (Judges, please penalize bad "southern" accents.) His acoustic work is true accompaniment: His playing dances behind the lyric like a trickster. Somewhere between Jason Isbell and Harlan T. Bobo, McNamara is a song stylist. You can't separate the blues from what he does. But he's not hidebound to form. He may lose points for some notion of "authenticity," but he's really good.