Blues Challenge on Beale 

The Memphis-based International Blues Foundation throws the world's biggest blues battle-of-the-bands this weekend with its annual International Blues Challenge competition, which will take over Beale Street and the surrounding area starting Thursday, January 31st. This 24th edition of the competition, in which unsigned blues artists and bands from around the world — each sponsored by one of the local blues societies that make up a large part of the foundation's membership — square off in multi-day, elimination contests, will bring 159 blues acts from 36 states and 10 countries (including first-ever entrants from South America and Africa) to the home of the blues, according to the foundation. Artists will compete in band and solo/duo categories with cash prizes, professional services, and performance slots at top blues festivals among the prizes.

Semifinals will take place Thursday and Friday night at 16 different Beale Street clubs. Finals in the solo/duo competition will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday at The Orpheum, while band finals commence at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the same venue.

Among the many ancillary activities is a Friday presentation by filmmaker John Sayles, whose blues-themed movie The Honeydripper opened the Indie Memphis Film Festival last fall and is set for a local theatrical release February 15th. Also, the foundation will present its annual Keeping the Blues Alive awards Saturday morning in a ceremony at the downtown Doubletree Hotel. For more information on events and tickets, see Blues.org.

New Band Alert: A couple of newish local bands featuring some familiar local-scene faces pair up at the Hi-Tone Café Saturday, February 2nd. Hi Electric features such local luminaries as Dave Shouse (Grifters, Bloodthirsty Lovers), Kevin Cubbins (Pawtuckets), and Robert Barnett (Big Ass Truck), but the promising alt-pop band is fronted by the less established Neil Bartlett. Opening is Meadowlarc, a three-piece band that's the latest project from Bret Preston, frontman of the late, great Eighty-Katie. Showtime is 10 p.m.; admission is $5. You can learn more about both bands and hear samples of their music online at MySpace.com/HiElectric and MySpace.com/Meadowlarc.

Riffs: Check out the February issue of Spin magazine for a feature on local garage/punk stalwart Jay Reatard, whose star is on the rise after years as an underground icon. Reatard is profiled in the "Who's Next" section of the alt-rock magazine as one of eight up-and-coming acts of 2008. Reatard's big push continues with an Australian tour in early March, performances at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival, and an extended slot this spring opening for blues-rockers The Black Keys. In the meantime, Reatard will be releasing a series of singles for Matador throughout the year and will have parts of his back catalogue re-released by In the Red and Goner. ... Also heading overseas is versatile roots-rocker Ron Franklin, whose profile was raised by his 2007 label debut City Lights, for Memphis International. Franklin is set to tour France this month. ... Former Stax executive and current Little Rock-based producer Al Bell speaks this week at the opening reception of the "WattStax: I Am Somebody!" exhibit at Rhodes College. The exhibit, running in conjunction with the campus celebration of Black History Month, contains a selection of more than 50 photographs from the archives of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and is free and open to the public Thursdays-Sundays at the Paul Barret Jr. Library on campus starting Saturday, February 2nd. Bell will speak at a reception on Tuesday, February 5th, at 7 p.m., also at the Barret Library. ... Singers Susan Marshall, Reba Russell, and Jackie Johnson, who have, as a trio, backed artists such as U2, B.B. King, and Norah Jones, join forces for a concert dubbed "Three Divas Doin' It Again" at the Poplar Pike Playhouse at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 1st. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $10 for students.

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