First things first: a hearty congratulations to the winners of the 22nd Annual International Blues Challenge, which took place over the weekend in and around Beale Street. South Florida bluesman Joey Gilmore, along with his band, won first place in the band contest Saturday night. Earlier in the day, Memphis-connected singer Eden Brent, representing the Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola, Mississippi, won in the solo/duo category. The Albert King Award for "most promising" guitar player went to Zack Weisinger of the third-place band Jill West & Blues Attack. San Diego's Aunt Kizzy'z Boyz took home second prize in the band contest. The prize for best self-produced CD went to Back in Bluesville by New Jersey's Roxy Perry.
Unfortunately, this year marked the second straight year I missed the IBC finals. Last year, paternity leave and family obligations provided the excuse. This year, a sudden sickness waylaid me, and I spent the night in bed instead. Even culled down to the finals, the IBC showcases a lot of pedestrian bands (an earlier finals inspired a taxonomy of contemporary blues bands: Blues Brothers, Kid Jonny Wayne Vaughan, Blues Hammer, Available For Your Next Corporate Function, etc.), and the wait from the final band's set to the announcement of the winner feels endless. But all that aside, I regret missing it, because I sincerely believe that the International Blues Challenge is one of the city's very best music events.
This year, the Memphis-based Blues Foundation drew more than 130 acts from 33 states and seven foreign countries to Beale Street, each act sponsored by a blues society affiliated with the foundation and many of the acts bolstered by the support of society members also making the trip. Those numbers swelled even more by the scores of journalists, record-label representatives, publicists, and established blues musicians in town for the weekend. Is there any better use of Beale Street as a showcase for the city?
Though I missed the finals, I didn't miss the weekend entirely. Friday night, I judged a semi-finals round at B.B. King's on Beale. As a generalist amid a sea of blues specialists, judging these contests always makes me a little uncomfortable. But in each of the two previous years I've served as a semi-finals judge, the band I've awarded the highest marks has gone on to win the whole contest. I could tell Friday night that my little streak would end this year. For starters, there were no clearly outstanding bands on the bill. But I also detected that I wasn't seeing things the same way as my fellow judges, one a West Coast blues journalist, the other a Midwestern label owner.
Both were nice, smart guys who knew and cared more about contemporary blues than I do. But as blues specialists, they clearly were looking and listening differently from me. They were investigating the details, plumbing the minor variations that genre specialists tend to fixate on. "He peaked too early on that first solo," the label owner remarked to me during one set. I didn't notice. I was just looking to see if there was any there there. And I saw it -- no, felt it -- once on Friday night. The band was Ron Teamer & Smokin' Gun, from Kansas City.
For his second song, Teamer pulled up a chair and sat down, strings of beads falling from the end of a V-shaped guitar made functional for how easily it lodged onto Teamer's knee. A slight African-American man, he sang as slowly and deliberately as he played, the soulful grain of his voice working against the utter ease of his delivery. It was a simple soul-blues number -- at first I mistook it for a cover of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long" -- and Teamer's drummer drove it along with a steady, hypnotic beat that crept up my spine and shamed his flashier counterparts from other bands.
I felt his beat, felt Teamer's song, felt something for the first and only time all night. My West Coast journalist companion went to find out if Teamer had any physical ailments that would require him to sit. My Midwest label-owner colleague allowed that "he sings with great feeling" but concluded -- fairly -- "there isn't much of a band there." I looked down at my score sheet and tried to put them in the finals. They didn't get there and wouldn't have won if they did. But for that one song out of the 40 or so I heard that night, the blues was most definitely alive.