Whose Blues? 

Searching for signs of life at the 20th International Blues Challenge.

A nerdy little white guy, bespectacled, steps to the front of the stage, grimacing his way through a flashy but empty guitar solo. He wears the standard white blues-guy uniform -- black, short-sleeve button-up shirt with "I'm a musician" patterns, stage lights gleaming off his polished Stacey Adams shoes. He is accompanied by a Will Ferrell lookalike sidekick decked out in a backward Kangol hat and a buttoned-up Oxford shirt with tie. The band is Blind Rhino, from Portland, Oregon, and they are playing "the blues." One thought is inescapable: Is there anything in contemporary music --or in American culture, period --more dead than this?

It's Saturday, January 31st -- officially the final day of the congressionally mandated "Year of the Blues" --at the New Daisy Theatre on historic Beale Street, and nine bands from across the country are vying for the title "best unsigned blues band" in the Blues Foundation's 20th annual International Blues Challenge. The event, in which more than 90 acts from across the globe are sponsored by local blues societies and sent to Memphis, offers a snapshot of what modern blues looks like. Needless to say, it isn't always a pretty picture.

Daniel “Slick” Ballinger

Watch this contest with a critical eye, amid the almost exclusively white audience, and you get the sense that much of the contemporary blues scene can be divided into a few common subgenres: Blues Brothers, "Jonny Wayne Shepherd," Blues Hammer (a priceless shorthand proffered by the film Ghost World), and "available for your next corporate function." Most of the first group --well-meaning hobbyists, generally --get weeded out early in contests like this. The other types are well-represented: The would-be-incendiary guitar fireworks of Kentucky's Kyle Daniel Band, with its 18-year-old, blond-pony-tailed frontman, was a veritable template for the modern blues-rock prodigy --the faster the playing the better, putting an emphasis on what is difficult to play over what is interesting to listen to. Birmingham's talented Tennessee Hat Company --who may have a bright future but seemed out of place at a blues contest -- were the "Blues Hammer" of the night, their stadium-sized aggression putting across music that might be dubbed the frat-boy mosh-pit blues. And Boston's Matthew Stubbs Band, who actually finished third, fit the final category to a T, their fresh-scrubbed zoot-suit boogie the kind of blues (or "buh-LOOOZE," as seems to be a preferred alternative pronunciation) you'd expect to see lawyers sipping martinis to at the end of an Ally McBeal episode.

Most of the other bands --Blind Rhino a prime example -- trafficked in generic, smoky bar-band blues rock, the kind of sound that makes the case that contemporary blues has morphed into a cultural refuge for white boomers who grew up on blues-based classic rock and now feel alienated by cultural shifts (i.e., the rise of hip-hop and punk) over the past quarter-century. These bands tend to give the impression of going through the motions in a dead art form.

This unavoidable subject was tackled quite well in a piece in Mother Jones magazine last September by veteran music writer David Hadju, who tracked the evolution of blues from an African-American music "born of oppression" to a "feel-good soundtrack for white America." Discussing how the elevation of guitar playing over singing as the core of blues expression is an extension of an audience shift toward classic-rock-reared white fans, Hadju quotes Delmark Records head Bob Koester who derided some white blues fans as reminiscent of "the idiot who goes to the opera house to listen to the orchestra."

Koester was a judge at the IBC finals Saturday, as was another of Hadju's interview subjects, Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer. Saturday night, Koester, Iglauer, and their jury mates seemed to be searching madly for a sign of authenticity amid so many perfunctory pretenders, and they may have found it.

Dennis Jones of the Mid-South Blues Revue

The Los Angeles-based Zac Harmon & the Mid-South Blues Revue took home the big prize. Harmon's band stood out in part because three of the five members were African-American, but that wasn't the only reason (though there may well be a connection between race and style). They also stood out because they played with feel rather than flash. Harmon cut a large, commanding figure at the front of the stage and was the night's most soulful, nuanced singer, especially on slower numbers (including a crowd-pleasing paean to full-figured women). And when he sang about sex --threatening to "break that little girl in two" -- there seemed to be no wink behind it.

Harmon's band was part of the lineup at the Thursday night semifinal round that I helped judge, and though I and my fellow judges (blues specialists where I'm a generalist and a dabbler) enjoyed the band and gave them high scores, we didn't think we were witnessing the future of the music. But if the band wasn't a revelation, at least they were a reminder that old-fashioned blues values and blues feel continue to persist amid a landscape of blues-rock flash and corporate sponsorships. They were solid.

A bit flashier but still with real blues feel was the night's second-place finisher, Rev. Slick & the Soul Blues Boys, representing Mississippi's Howlin' Wolf Blues Society. Fronted by baby-faced Daniel Ballinger --a white teen from North Carolina who is now based in Como, Mississippi --with Kinney Kimbrough (son of the late Junior Kimbrough) on drums and Terry Bean (perhaps the real star of the night; reminding everyone that he was from Mississippi as much as other acts constantly remind listeners that they play "the blues") on harmonica, this trio served as a reminder that the hill-country sound may well be the last great, authentic blues scene that we have, their rural style a welcome anomaly. They may have been the crowd favorites, and it was truly heartening to see a large portion of the audience leap to its feet to dance along with the band's chugging hill-country rhythms.

Terry Bean

The flamboyant yet seemingly un-self-conscious Ballinger (who has played regular gigs at Beale's Blues City CafÇ in recent months) played pure rhythm on guitar, leading his band into a standard hypnotic, hill-country trance groove. By awarding the modest Ballinger --whose playing was interesting to listen to but not difficult to play --with the Albert King Award for "most promising guitarist" (Ballinger's reaction: "I ain't anywhere close to being the best guitarist in this place, but I'm glad y'all like Mississippi-style blues"), the judges seemed to be sending a message to all of the solo-mad blues rockers in attendance: that imagination and feel are more important than dexterity and volume. Not everyone got the message: One meaty middle-linebacker type standing next to me at the back of the club complained after Ballinger's set, "That was like a swing band. He only knew one fucking chord."

The impression any nonpartisan onlooker would have gotten from this year's International Blues Challenge is of a proud genre limping along. An endangered species fighting to survive. But is this the truth? It might be that it's a reflection of the culture of blues societies (which sponsored all the competing bands) rather than the blues. An endlessly durable root form, the blues has sparked plenty of interesting new developments in recent years -- from the hip-hop inflections of young African-American bluesmen Corey Harris and Chris Thomas King to the blues grounding of white, punk-bred rock bands like the White Stripes and the Gossip. That these sounds were nowhere to be found Saturday night is troubling, but that doesn't mean the energy isn't still out there.

E-mail: herrington@memphisflyer.com

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