Refuge in the Blues 

Former soul singers and rockers-at-heart stand out at the International Blues Challenge.

Danny Alexander

Justin Fox Burks

Danny Alexander

One of the recurring complaints about the modern blues scene is that so much of it isn't "real" blues — that it's a land of classic-rock refugees, white boomers who discovered the blues via British rockers, middle-class hobbyists inspired by Jake & Elwood more than Muddy & Willie.

Spend a few hours club-hopping at the International Blues Challenge — an annual "battle of the bands" sponsored by the Blues Foundation, which, in this 26th year, brought some 224 acts from across the globe to Beale Street clubs, where "standing room only" was the norm — and it's pretty clear that the biggest influences on the modern blues scene are more likely to be Eric Clapton and Ray Charles than Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton.

Nearly half of the acts I saw Friday night made these classic-rock and soul influences plain. At Silky O'Sullivan's, Robert Sampson, a young African-American solo artist from Illinois, was winning over the audience with boogie-woogie piano, harmonica, and his own stomping-foot percussion. His chief crowd-pleaser? A cover of Charles' "Hallelujah I Love Her So." A couple of hours later, at the Tap Room, Harrison Kennedy, a middle-aged African-American man playing solo acoustic blues, slipped a little Brother Ray into one of his own songs, crooning, "I got a woman, way across town, that's good to me."

In age and instrumentation, Kennedy looked the proper bluesman, but this Ontario-based musician doesn't have a typical blues bio: He cut his musical teeth as a singer for the Detroit-based, late-'60s soul group Chairmen of the Board, post-Motown protégés of legendary production team Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Down the street, at Rum Boogie Café, North Carolina's Charlley Ward Band similarly confounded notions of authenticity. The band, made up entirely of middle-aged black men, looked the part of a "real" blues band, but Ward's background wasn't any different from the white boomers at whom blues-scene skeptics roll their eyes.

"I started playing guitar when I was 16," Ward said from the stage. "And back then people said I sounded like Jimi Hendrix. That didn't work. So I decided I wanted to sound like one of those old blues guys." Soon after, Ward gave a shout-out to old blues guys Clapton and Robert Cray.

At Superior, the Danny Alexander Band, from New Orleans, fit the stereotype better: A big white guy, Alexander led his band through a set-closing cover of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic." Blues-band covers of Morrison songs (typically "Brown-Eyed Girl") are cliché, of course, but Alexander had a rich, powerful voice and sang the song well. Is "Into the Mystic" blues? Maybe not, but it's a great song, and it's certainly blues-based. And maybe that's really the point.

More and more it seems like the real problem with modern blues isn't a lack of tradition but too much of it. A comparison to country music is instructive. These two core roots genres were the foundation for most of the best pop music of the 20th century, with blues setting the stage for rock-and-roll and soul music, in particular. But then came the great shift of the late '70s, when genres such as hip-hop, punk, and disco/techno began to move the cultural energy in pop music away from its rural roots.

These changes have increasingly marginalized traditionalists, few of whom now break through to the center of the pop marketplace. This dynamic has actually been a benefit to country music, whose big tent has made room for refugees from hip-hop (Kid Rock), teen-pop (Jessica Simpson), frat-rock (Hootie & the Blowfish's Darius Rucker), arena metal (Bon Jovi), and folk-pop (Jewel). This makes the genre's authenticity guardians squirm but hasn't stopped country music from evolving alongside the world it serves. If John Mellencamp emerged today, he'd be a "country" artist.

Blues is also a natural refuge for traditionalists, as we see from all these partisans of post-blues pop (namely classic rock and soul) returning to the mothership, but building that big tent is trickier for blues. The authenticity issues are decidedly thornier for an essentially African-American form now dominated — as judged by the demographics of gatherings like the IBC — by white fans and practitioners. Young African-American musicians, for better or worse — and I'd vote better — are less likely to look backward.

Still, the big tent is the best path. Kennedy was by far the most interesting of the couple dozen acts I saw in two days at the IBC. With his dapper gray suit, scarf, glasses, and neat facial hair, he struck a thoroughly modern, sophisticated pose, like TV On the Radio's cool uncle. Musically, his solo-acoustic blues started out rooted in a Mississippi John Hurt gentleness. Initially, his falsetto delivery was drowned out by typical bar noise, but it was beautiful, and the crowd gradually picked up on it. By the end of the song, the bar was dead quiet until the biggest ovation I heard for anyone Friday night.

On another song, Kennedy accompanied himself only with a couple of wooden spoons and mouth percussion that ranged from human beat-box to a little kid's finger-on-lips sound game. Vocally, he showed everything. Strong, pure soul singing giving way to a low end as convincing as his falsetto. And his songs were modern and funny. It was "traditional" blues as contemporary, personal pop. He capped it off with a brief, swaying, a cappella version of his Chairmen of the Board hit "Give Me Just a Little More Time." His delivery wasn't perfunctory; it was 'Hey, I was a part of this great pop song! Check it out!" Blues? No, but blues-based.

I left the Tap Room certain I'd see Kennedy again at the solo/duo finals at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, but he was mysteriously absent from a solid lineup that lacked anyone as engaging or easily musical. Representing Kennedy's preliminary group instead was Ken "The Rocket" Korb, a harmonica-and-washboard man from Long Island. Korb was one of the better acts in the finals. But his performance had a decidedly academic bent to it. He came across as a great "blues in the schools" guest, and I suspect — but don't know — that he made the finals over Kennedy because he was deemed more of a "real blues" artist.

The judges at the finals got it right, though. The winner of the IBC's solo/duo competition was another Canadian, Matt Anderson, a hulking young white guy with long, curly hair. Can heavy blues-rock be played solo acoustic? Anderson proved it could. He was a deep-voiced blues growler and imaginative guitar player, and as he played his acoustic set, he banged his head and swung his hair around like he was front row at a Judas Priest concert. He was lost in his music but also self-aware and funny. The audience loved him and not without reason. Remember that name.

Anderson was the most fully alive performer at the solo/duo finals, but the overall lineup was pretty good. A couple of acts — Austin's Jimi Lee & P.B. Shane and Arizona's Tom Walbank & Arthur Migliazza — were blues-contest dutiful and at times corny-in-a-bad-way. Talented but with no spark. Second-place finishers Alphonso Sanders and Bill "Howl-n-Madd" Perry, from Mississippi, were the only African-American finalists. Their personalized take on tradition (Perry busted out a clarinet for one song) was worthy of recognition if not terribly memorable. My own second favorite finalist was Becky Boyd & Tim Matson from Cleveland. Matson's electric guitar was devoid of needless flash. He played simply, and with feeling, which matched Boyd's similarly affecting vocals.

Rounding out the group was Wisconsin's Steve Cohen and Mississippi's Sherman Lee Dillon. Cohen was a surprisingly strong, soulful singer who accompanied himself with harmonica. The older Dillon, who had apparently been a consultant on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was an early-blues traditionalist whose warm approach lacked any stuffiness or self-consciousness.

I couldn't make the band finals later that night, but congratulations are in order for young Mississippian Grady Champion, who led his band to first-place honors. Second place went to Oregon's Karen Lovely Band. Finishing third was Cincinnati's Cheryl Renee & Them Bones, a Bettye Lavette-style soul-blues belter whom I saw Friday night at Club 152 and enjoyed. Top guitarist honors went to Matt Kelly of Washington, D.C.'s Big Boy Little Band.

That Harrison Kennedy — the old soul-scene survivor — and Matt Anderson — the young head-banger — were the most compelling artists I saw at the IBC doesn't mean that there's no present or future in blues traditionalism. I'm sure there were good purist blues acts I missed. But the blues launched a branch of pop that evolved and expanded into multiple directions. With the pop center now largely relocated, it's only right that the blues should welcome its babies back home.

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