Regional acts in focus at International Blues Challenge

Memphis, Mississippi acts among top competitors at annual talent search

The Ghost Town Blues Band won the Memphis Blues Society contest to represent the city.

Courtesy of Inside Sounds

The Ghost Town Blues Band won the Memphis Blues Society contest to represent the city.

On Tuesday, the Blues Foundation will launch its 30th annual International Blues Challenge in the clubs and concert halls of Beale Street and Downtown Memphis. The 2014 edition represents a peak, with a record 255 acts performing in 22 venues, with more than 10,000 fans expected to attend over the course of the five-day event.

Those blues aficionados will watch artists competing from 40 states and 16 countries. While performers will arrive from locales as far-flung as Colombia, Croatia and the Philippines, some of the most hotly tipped talent will be from a little closer: Memphis, Mississippi and the Delta.

Clarksdale blues duo David Dunavent and Zack Hood represent the Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola at the International Blues Challenge.

Courtesy of Mississippi Delta Blues Inc

Clarksdale blues duo David Dunavent and Zack Hood represent the Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola at the International Blues Challenge.

Singer-guitarist Mr. Sipp “The Mississippi Blues Child” took top honors at the 30th International Blues Challenge, which concluded Saturday.

Courtesy of Blue South Entertainment

Singer-guitarist Mr. Sipp “The Mississippi Blues Child” took top honors at the 30th International Blues Challenge, which concluded Saturday.

The Ghost Town Blues Band is representing the Memphis Blues Society in the International Blues Challenge.

Photo courtesy of Inside Sounds

The Ghost Town Blues Band is representing the Memphis Blues Society in the International Blues Challenge.

It’s been a heartening development in recent years as regional acts such as Grady Champion, Eden Brent and Homemade Jamz have all made big splashes at the IBC before going on to greater fame.

This year, Memphis’ Ghost Town Blues Band and Vicksburg guitar man Mr. Sipp “The Mississippi Blues Child” are returning finalists from 2013 looking to make their mark again. Along with acts like Dunavent & Hood, Jarekus Singleton and A Different Shade of Blues, they’re able modern

representatives for the historic homes of the blues.

“It’s good for them and good for us,” says Blues Foundation president Jay Sieleman of the strong showings by regional performers. “It’s hard to put a finger on it, but there’s still a little bit of a different sound that comes out of this part of the world than acts from other parts of the country, no matter how good they are. There’s something in the water and the soil around these parts.”

“And it’s not just guys that have been doing this for 30-40 years,” he adds. “These are younger acts that are coming out of both Mississippi and Memphis. That’s what makes it exciting.”

The rise of the Ghost Town Blues Band has been a story of evolution. Since forming five years ago, the group has grown from a three-piece guitar combo into an expansive horn-fueled sextet. “We’re a diverse band,” says singer/guitarist Matt Isbell. “It’s three white guys, three black guys, and every one of us is a total individual. Even the music we play is a kind of a mix of Memphis meets New Orleans meets funky Delta blues.”

After finishing second twice, Ghost Town Blues Band finally won the Memphis Blues Society contest this year to qualify for the International Blues Challenge (in 2013, they entered IBC as a representative of the Crossroads Blues Society of Rosedale, Miss.). “We’re really honored to represent Memphis,” says Isbell. “Memphis being the home of the blues, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t provide some real stiff competition.”

But for Isbell, winning the IBC isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal. “If you come here with the attitude of ‘This is a big competition, and we’re going to win it’ — no matter if you’re from New Zealand or Georgia, you’re going to lose. That’s not what IBC is ultimately about,” he says.

“This is the biggest blues convention in the world. It’s an opportunity to shake hands with as many people as you can, to try and play a good set in front of fans, and some talent buyers, and maybe even record label owners. Everybody comes here, so you want to dress to impress, as they say. We didn’t win last year, but people started returning our phone calls right away just because they heard about us or saw us at IBC.”

Sieleman says the year-round efforts of local blues societies and the showcase that IBC week offers have become vital forces in contemporary blues. “Generally speaking, blues music is pretty organic in the sense that it’s not really trickle-down — it’s trickle-up,” says Sieleman. “It’s really true that it’s the musicians and the fans that create most of this. It’s not the kind of things that companies serve on a platter and the unknowing public wanders in and digs it. That’s why we have the blues societies and the IBC. I think were filling a void that was missing in the commercial world for this music.”

The added exposure for the IBC — which has grown in numbers each of the past seven years — has also benefited the Blues Foundation as it seeks to get funding for the construction of a Blues Hall of Fame in Downtown.

The organization has secured $2 million in pledges and donations so far — with roughly $1.7 million of that coming in individual contributions from blues fans. Sieleman hopes to reach the Hall of Fame’s $2.5 million goal by this spring. “We’re 80 percent of the way there. We have an architect, an exhibit designer, a general contractor, all ready to go. We’re hoping we get some last big chunks of funding this spring, in order to get started in June.”

In the meantime, as the IBC ramps up, Ghost Town Blues Band’s Isbell has figured out what he’ll need to do to make it to the end successfully.

“The lesson I learned from last year was not to have so much fun,” says Isbell, laughing. “I stayed up all night every night last year, watching bands, meeting as many new friends as I could and shooting the breeze and making contacts. By the time we got to the finals, my voice was toast. This year, I’m going to force myself to go to sleep.”

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2014 International Blues Challenge

The event runs Tuesday, Jan. 21 through Sunday, Jan. 25 at various venues on and around Beale Street. The Blues Foundation is selling a $100 pass that covers all events. To purchase, go to blues.org, or call 901-527-2583.

For a full list of acts, venues and more information, go to blues.org.

Here are some highlights of both official and auxiliary events:

Tuesday

The International Showcase features performances by a dozen international IBC competitors. 5:30 p.m. at the New Daisy, 330 Beale. Cover is $10 at the door.

The Generation Blues Jam Benefit is hosted by 2014 “Keeping the Blues Alive” recipient Tas Cru. 8 p.m. at Rum Boogie Café, 182 Beale.

Wednesday/ Thursday

Quarterfinals in both band and solo/duo competitions will be held in Beale Street venues. Wristbands are $10.

Thursday

Great Canadian Polar Bear Blues showcase and Raise the Roof! fundraiser. 11:30 a.m. at Kooky Canuck, 97 S. Second.

Galaxie Agency/Nashville Blues Society showcase. 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at B.B. King’s Blues Club, 143 Beale.

Blind Raccoon Roots & Blues showcase. 11:30 a.m. at Purple Haze Night Club, 140 Lt. George W. Lee.

Friday, Jan. 24

Semifinals in both the band and solo/duo competitions will take place in Beale Street clubs. This also includes the Youth Showcase, which begins at 4:20 p.m. Wristbands are $15.

The 2014 Keeping the Blues Alive Awards. 11 a.m. at Doubletree Hotel.

Blind Raccoon Roots & Blues showcase. 11:30 a.m. at Purple Haze Night Club, 140 Lt. George W. Lee.

Saturday, Jan. 25

Doors open at 11 a.m. for the finals of band and solo/duo competitions at 11 a.m. at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main. Tickets: $42.50 . Those can be purchased at orpheum-memphis.com.

© 2014 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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