Seattle group The WIRED! Band and Arkansas-based singer-songwriter Ray Bonneville were the big winners in the 28th International Blues Challenge.
The five-day blues competition and event culminated Saturday night with finals at Downtown's Orpheum, capping a week of shows in and around Beale Street. Staged by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, the challenge brought about 230 acts from across the country and around the world to the Bluff City, with thousands of fans flocking to be a part of the festivities.
Blues Foundation president Jay Sieleman did not have final numbers, but based on crowd projections from Saturday's Orpheum final, he said this year's edition clearly surpassed all previous attendance records.
It was a packed house that saw The WIRED! Band, representing the Washington (state) Blues Society, perform a lively interactive set that bested second-place finishers the Bart Walker Band, from Nashville.
"The WIRED! Band in terms of audience participation, they had the place going in a call and response thing," said Sieleman. "Both the guitarists and the drummer leaped off the stage into the audience. But it wasn't just the entertainment value; the judges obviously felt that they had the right musicality as well."
Meanwhile, it was an eclectic mix of finalists in the solo/duo category. "When you get down to solo/duo category finals it can be a little like judging apples and oranges," said Sieleman. "You might have a singer-songwriter, a classic solo blues guy, a piano and drum combination all competing. So it's a tough call sometimes."
Canadian-born, Arkansas-based Ray Bonneville clearly swayed the judges with his set, taking the top honor over Australian act Dr. Don's Double Dose.
In addition to the two main categories, several other awards, including best guitarist and best self-produced CD, were handed out as part of the finals.
The bigger development, perhaps, was the changing shape of the challenge, which has expanded its scope from a simple amateur competition to a must-see event on the blues circuit, for both fans and professionals.
"Most of that growth has been organic," says Sieleman. "As the quality of the competition has increased you've started seeing blues fans from all over attend. And now more and more industry folks -- labels, producers, booking agents and managers -- are coming on scouting expeditions. The last and the most recent aspect that we're seeing is musicians who are not involved in the competition per se, but who are still coming to network and to perform in (noncompetitive) showcases. That's all good for the challenge."
The 29th International Blues Challenge is set for Jan. 29 through Feb. 2, 2013. For more information, go to blues.org.
-- Bob Mehr: (901) 529-2517
28th INTERNATIONAL BLUES CHALLENGE WINNERS:
Winner: The WIRED! Band (Washington Blues Society)
Second Place: The Bart Walker Band (Nashville Blues Society)
Winner: Ray Bonneville (Ozark Blues Society of Northwest Arkansas)
Second Place: Dr. Don's Double Dose (Sydney Blues Society)
Gibson Guitarist Award:
Lee Oskar Top Harmonica Player:
Best Self Produced CD:
Dave Keller, Where I'm Coming From