Blues With a Feeling: the 2023 International Blues Challenge goes on

Words and photos by Ken Billett

January 28, 2023—On a wet Saturday night, John Nemeth and his band, The Blue Dreamers, opened their set to a boisterous crowd that gave Nemeth a sincere, affection welcome. The 2023 International Blues Challenge (IBC) had ended just a couple of hours earlier when this year’s winners were announced on The Orpheum Theatre’s historic stage.

Now it was time to have some fun.

Nemeth played host to a jam session—held at a packed and hopping Rum Boogie Café—which raised money for Generation Blues, one of the many support programs sponsored by The Blues Foundation—founded and headquartered here in Memphis. Generation Blues is an initiative to cultivate the next generation of blues musicians and fans.

After five days of intense competition, master classes designed to hone musical skills, and networking for connections, the blues community came together Saturday night to have a good time with great music.

All for a good cause, of course.

I looked around the floor of Rum Boogie, watching that community in action. People I’ve only met once or twice, or, maybe, only digitally, talked, laughed, and listened to the music. I noted the new faces seen and new friends made over a week of genuine, authentic performances. A community of lovers. Blues lovers.

My head and my heart needed that love.

Feeling Blue

Several months ago, we’d blocked off the last full week in January to enjoy some of the best music the current blues community had to offer. With event passes purchased and an Airbnb rented near South Main Street, we looked forward to getting away without actually getting away. Hanging out on Beale Street and roaming around the South Main Arts District would be worlds apart from our suburban lives in Far East Memphis.

Sadly, my father passed away in late December (read Winnie Ille Pooh) and a good friend died in mid-January. So, hanging out and partying were the furthest things on my mind.

Grieving, however, is necessary in order for healing to begin. Vicki, my wife, asked if I still wanted to attend the Blues Challenge. When I said I think so, she suggested that maybe the change of scenery would be good for me.

She was right, of course.

During my time on Beale Street, I was reminded of Little Walter’s blues classic, Blues With A Feeling, which summed up my emotions. While Little Walter lamented about losing his woman, my sad feelings came from losing people close to me…people who were an important part of my life.

Blues with a feelin’

That’s what I have today

Blues with a feelin’

That’s what I have today

Perhaps immersing myself in a blues competition would begin to bring me out of my emotional funk.

Irony might be searching for joy through blues music.

International Blues Challenge—38th Edition

Official International Blues Challenge (IBC) festivities kicked off on Tuesday (January 24) night with several showcase performances held on Beale Street in downtown Memphis. For those of you unfamiliar with IBC, The Blues Foundation holds this annual event on Beale Street in late January. IBC Week is like a five-day long Blues musicconvention featuring health care screenings, musician workshops, roundtable discussions, book signings, and those showcase concerts (for more about IBC Week read Hey, Hey, The Blues is All Right).

The Challenge portion of IBC Week featured mostly up-and-coming blues artists, who competed in two categories: solo/duo and band. These acts come from all across the country and from around the world.

The competition and other related activities took over all of the Beale Street Entertainment District. This year, over 145 acts from 40 states and 12 countries performed in several rounds of competition. Talented, dedicated musicians proudly represented their affiliate or sponsoring organizations. These blues performers made up a veritable United Nations of talent, which translated (yes, pun intended) into acts from several nations making it to last Saturday’s finals at the Orpheum.

International Twist

January 26, 2023—Thursday night and the IBC buzz had stirred up the crowd inside Blue City Café’s Band Box. Mind, Body, & Soul, representing the Korea Blues Society, tuned their instruments to begin their scheduled set. The Band Box’s doorman, a Black man with a clean-shaven head and the patience of Job, leaned over to me. “Wait ’til you hear these guys,” he said nodding towards the stage. “They’ve perfected that standard blues sound, including the guitar licks.” The doorman joked that the lead singer of Mind, Body & Soul sounded like an old Black bluesman.

After listening to the Korean quartet play that night and the next, I agreed with the doorman’s assessment.

Those guys rocked the house.

Five acts from foreign countries made Saturday’s finals, including the Solo/Duo winner, Frank Sultanarepresenting the Sydney (Australia) Blues Society and The Cinelli Brothers, representing the United Kingdom, who finished second in the Band Division. All the foreign competitors added their own unique twist to a thoroughly American music genre.

Blues is definitely international.

Back to Saturday night at Rum Boogie and John Nemeth temporarily vacated the stage so Sugaray Rayfordcould belt out some soulful blues. A previous Blues Music Award winner, Sugaray brings the heat to his performances and the blues crowd was loving it.

Standing next to me in that crowd was Tom Craig, an excellent blues guitarist and vocalist, and a true road warrior. Seated down front was Janiva Magness, a Grammy-nominated blues, soul, and Americana singer who won the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award in 2009. On Friday (January 27th) afternoon, Janiva graciously spent time talking with Vicki and me about her background and music career.

An unexpected treat and a great experience.

Sugaray Rayford relinquished the stage to Dylan “DT” Triplett, a 21-year-old blues and soul singer from St. Louis who was recently nominated for a Blues Music Award. DT got an already raucous crowd even rowdier and then teamed with fellow St. Louis native Marquise Knox to send Rum Boogie’s patrons into a frenzy.

Definitely blues with a feeling.

As I wrote last May (again, read Hey, Hey, The Blues is All Right), after-hours jam sessions are what make IBC Week such a joy for both the fans and the musicians—anything goes and everything goes when it comes to the music.

During Marquise Knox’s performance, a gray-bearded gentleman wearing a black flat cap sat in the chair recently occupied by Janiva Magness. The man seated next to him playful told Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin that the chair was taken. Margolin is a living legend in the blues community. A guitarist extraordinaire who, as a backing musician for Muddy Waters, appeared in the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz.

A special part of IBC Week is mingling with blues royalty—at no extra charge.

Later that night, we said our goodbyes to friends and musicians alike and headed through Rum Boogie’s side door, entering The Blues Hall, which claims to be the last true juke joint on Beale. I’ve always loved The Blues Hall’s authentic look and feel, along with its tight spaces and intimacy. Memphis blues ambassador Eric Hughes, along with his band, played to a decent-sized crowd.

We continued our walk down an almost empty Beale Street and made one final stop at the Band Box, next door to Blues City Café. Inside, Blind Mississippi Morris, a Memphis blues icon, was holding court. Morris is one local blues act that everyone should hear live.

Morris, seated in a chair with a harp in hand, rocked back and forth to a bluesy bass beat. I smiled watching the man doing what he loved. You can find joy in the simplest of things. And, perhaps, some emotional healing as well.

As I did on a cold, rainy Saturday night…on Beale Street.

What a lonesome feelin’

When you’re by yourself

When the one that you’re lovin’

Have gone away livin’


Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.

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