When I called Pat Mitchell, the interim director of The Blues Foundation, for information about this year's BluesFirst convention and International Blues Challenge, the first thing she wanted to talk about was Mrs. Fletcher. While the fact that a leader in the national blues community could enjoy a performance by one of Memphis' heaviest rock bands might throw some readers, those of you who know Pat will understand perfectly.
"I went to their CD-release party at Muvico Friday night, and it was the coolest thing I've seen all year," Mitchell says. "At midnight, I paid $15, which got me into the premiere of Darkness Falls. The band played for 30 minutes while the screen ran previews of horror movies before the movie started. It was incredible. [Mrs. Fletcher's] album is called The Evil E.P. and they sold over 100 copies! The band is really great -- kind of a cross between System of a Down and Ziggy Stardust. Muvico didn't know what to think. They had tons of security in there, but they were cool with the crowd. I want to thank them for opening such an innovative showcase for local bands."
That rave out of the way, Mitchell turns back to the International Blues Challenge: "I've really seen this event grow over the years," Mitchell says. "When I started at the Blues Foundation six years ago, the bands got to play for 10 minutes. They'd travel halfway around the world for that one shot on Beale Street! But now they get to play for two nights and get judged twice. We have almost 70 bands -- more musicians than we've had in the history of the contest. We have a band from the Republic of Georgia, one from Norway, groups from Singapore, Canada, and the U.K., and, of course, bands from all over the U.S."
Any organization affiliated with the Blues Foundation could send a band. "Just getting in the IBC elevates a band's credibility," Mitchell says. "They become more than just a local artist. And the bands that make the finals get a real shot at making it on the national blues scene."
Having label owners like Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records and David Less of Memphis International on hand to judge the final round doesn't hurt either. "You get radio people, promoters, and club owners seeing you here, and if you network, you can walk out of this weekend with contacts for festivals and clubs across the country," Mitchell says. "It's one weekend where you can really promote yourself to the blues community. It's almost like a South by Southwest for the blues world."
"Susan Tedeschi and Sean Costello were both finalists at the IBC," Mitchell points out. "Richard Johnston won two years ago, and this year he's nominated for a Handy Award. It's so exciting to see past winners who have pushed themselves to the forefront of the scene."
And who does she have her bets on for 2003? Mitchell demurs at first, then mentions Daniel "Slick" Ballinger, a North Carolina-based youngster who plays in the Mississippi hill-country style. "I appreciate him so much. It's really encouraging to see a kid his age hanging out with Othar Turner and doing what people like Sid Selvidge did with Furry Lewis and what the North Mississippi Allstars did with Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. It's nice to see that the grand blues tradition is still happening. The dedication to their art is almost like an apprenticeship," Mitchell says.
Tickets for the International Blues Challenge quarterfinals and semifinals, which run Thursday, January 30th, and Friday, January 31st, respectively, cost $10 for a wristband entrance to all Beale Street clubs. Tickets for the finals on Saturday, February 1st, held at the New Daisy Theatre, also cost $10. For more information on the IBC and BluesFirst conference, go to blues.org.
You can e-mail Andria Lisle at firstname.lastname@example.org.