Like Lower Broadway in Nashville, Memphis’s world famous Beale Street has, as if by some process of natural commercial accretion, grown into an entertainment and tourist destination somewhat removed from its roots music origins. But those interested in enjoying Beale Street as a wall-to-wall blues experience can do so next week, from Jan. 22 to 26, when the International Blues Challenge rocks and rolls for the 35th time.
“Beale street is real true to its origins that (week),” says Barbara Newman, president and CEO of the Blues Foundation, organizers and hosts of the IBC. And it’s not just the night life. By day, she says, “we will have showcases and blues jams and panels and workshops and master classes and film and all sorts of other conference-like activities. It’s a really fun week for the fans as well as for the industry.”
Likewise for WMOT Roots Radio, which has plans to be on hand, broadcasting live from the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel downtown. Whit Hubner will be spinning records and interviewing artists from 10 am to 1 pm on Wednesday and 9 am to noon on Thursday. LIsten for him Saturday after 6 pm, in the hour running up to the challenge finals, which take place in the Orpheum Theater. “My goal is so people listening will get some kind of idea of what the event is,” Hubner said. “There’s no better time to experience Beale Street than during the IBC.”
The event grew out of the Blues Amateur Talent Contest that took place in Memphis starting in the mid 1980s. It took on its current name and format in 2000 with 50 competitors. Now there are more than 250, participating because they’re winners of local competitions held by as many as 180 blues societies worldwide. Bands play in rounds starting Wednesday about 5 pm across more than 20 venues. Judges drawn from the ranks of blues DJs, writers, promoters and other professionals winnow the field until semi-finals on Friday night. Finalists compete in real time on Saturday in the grandeur of the Orpheum.
Grand prizes are handed out in two key categories: Best Band and Best Solo/Duo. A best guitar player prize is awarded in each of those fields, and a best harmonica player is named overall. These prizes are not to be confused with the Blues Music Awards, which take place in May honoring current genre leaders and recordings, though some past IBC contestants have gone on to win those industry-capping prizes. Past standouts or winners at IBC include Susan Tedeschi, Ori Naftaly who leads STAX Records signees Southern Avenue and guitar whiz Sean Costello.
Newman said the IBC is meant to be a booster shot for deserving artists in a crowded field. “We really are looking for the next great blues artist, the person who’s going to make their mark internationally in the blues,” she said. Emphasis on international. “The blues doesn’t have any borders. So even though it’s an American art form that was created in a specific region of the country, once it jumped off of Beale St and out of Memphis and started getting its legs, there was no stopping it.”
Artists participating will represent about 15 different countries, she said.