Judging the preliminary rounds at the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge last week, I began to wonder just what the blues was all about. When I want to hear the blues, I head to Wild Bill's citified juke joint on Vollintine or drive over to the Blue Worm on Airways. If I've got the time, I cruise down to Clarksdale, Mississippi, for a dose of the blues at Red's Lounge, Sarah's Kitchen, or any of the tiny storefront clubs that dot that city's New World District.
But on Beale Street this past weekend, the scene was considerably more trendy: Musicians, representing dozens of blues societies from the continental U.S. to the Republic of Georgia to Australia, crowded the entertainment district for their chance at fame. A lot of these self-described "bluesmen" were clad in cowboy hats, leather pants, and motorcycle boots. Others wore dapper vests, berets, and shiny Stacey Adams shoes. All were competing in the genre's biggest amateur competition, a kind of American Idol for the blues.
During my six-hour stint at the shoebox-sized Shake Shack, I listened to eight contestants in the solo/duo competition. These entrants came from as far away as New York state and as close as rural Pleasant View, Tennessee. Their music was likewise disparate, ranging from Stevie Ray Vaughan licks to Eric Clapton-esque ballads, soulful laments, harmonica rants, and everything in between.
One contender blew into his harp beatbox-style, while another player plucked perfect Delta chords on his beautiful resonator guitar. It was all the blues, but some acts sounded better than others. Ultimately, The Smoke Daddys -- an unlikely Long Island duo featuring a Billy Joel look-alike on guitar and a long-haired rocker on a flame-painted stand-up bass -- were catapulted to the finals.
At the Center for Southern Folklore Saturday afternoon, the Smoke Daddys competed against four more acts in the solo/duo category. Ultimately, Australian Jimi Hocking took the prize, which included $1,000 cash, an acoustic guitar donated by Strings & Things, and a package including free Web-site design, consulting, a handful of festival bookings, and more. At the New Daisy Theatre later that night, South Florida bluesman Joey Gilmore -- representing the Blues Society of Taiwan -- swept the band competition, beating out nine other acts for $1,500 cash, $4,000 in musical equipment (again, courtesy of Strings & Things), and a slot at a dozen blues festivals and events, including the 2006 Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.
"The 2005 International Blues Challenge broke all records," says Blues Foundation vice president Betsie Brown. "We had 126 acts. Add in the band members and supporters, and you've got several thousand people coming to Memphis for the competition."
I caught up with one such traveler, bluesman Dov Hammer, who came from Tel Aviv, for the event. "Where we come from, nobody knows the blues, but they connect to it immediately," says Hammer. His group, CG & the Hammer, represented Blues for Peace, an Israeli blues society.
"The blues talks about everyday life -- troubles anyone anywhere on the globe might have," Hammer explains.
Judy Peiser, the executive director of the Center for Southern Folklore, which hosted several IBC events, agrees. "This festival does a lot to provide a platform for people around the world," she says. "There's definitely an appreciation for it on a worldwide scale. It really allows people to plug their own feelings into the vernacular."
"As a genre, the blues is open to interpretation, and we all have our own definitions of what it means," says Brown. "On the scorecards, we have a section that says 'blues content.' It's one of the categories that the musicians are judged on, which was interesting this year because we had an Irish group, The Brian Meakin Band, which played outstanding blues-rock standards. They wrote all their own arrangements, and they rocked the house at B.B. King's, but they didn't progress because they lacked strong blues content. I suspect that as we expand, we're going to have to look at that and figure out how to make the challenge work on another level. Of course, we want to find musicians who are bluesmen in the truest sense of the word, but we'd also like to work in bands that don't quite fit that format," Brown explains.
"It's like comparing apples to oranges," says Yellow Dog Records owner Mike Powers, who served as a judge. "Even within the solo/duo and band categories, there's such a range of sub-genres. One idea is to split up the challenge into several categories, then award the best act in each category and a 'Best of Show.'
"Five finalists weren't enough for the solo/duo category; there were some very deserving musicians who didn't make the cut," Powers notes. "But all in all, it's a fantastic event. The bands get more professional every year. Whether they won or not, a number of them are going to have touring and recording contracts come out of this."