Elijah Boone strummed a chord on his acoustic guitar and then kicked off his set at Ghost River Brewing Company’s Beale Street taproom and beer garden. With a soulful voice that’s well beyond his twenty-one years, Elijah quickly captured the crowd’s attention. This poised young man played a unique style of both smooth and gritty blues. Elijah’s brethren waited in the wings, absorbing his musicianship, making mental notes for their own upcoming performances, and, perhaps, worked out any last-minute jitters.
Opening night of The Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge (IBC) was in full swing, and the blues were definitely back on Beale.
The House is a Rockin’
Friday night on Beale Street was a sight to behold. The slowly setting sun baked the street in an orange glow—a warm reminder that summer would be here soon. Memphians, tourists, blues competitors, and their fans, roamed Beale, shielding their eyes and dodging street vendors, while taking-in one of the most famous spots in American music folklore.
The night’s solo/duo competition at Ghost River brought artists from around the country and from across the Atlantic Ocean. Eric Ramsey, representing the Phoenix Blues Society, played just before Elijah Boone, and a duo, representing the Central Iowa Blues Society tore up the intimate stage with their electric blues. Later that evening, Bad Temper Joe, a bluesman from Germany, growled his way through an excellent set.
Not only are the blues all right, they’re also international.
Every Day I Have the Blues
The Memphis-based Blues Foundation traditionally holds its International Blues Challenge, simply known as IBC, each year in January. The pandemic, along with a mid-winter surge, forced the Foundation to move this year’s competition to early May, which coincided with Blues Hall of Fame inductions and the annual Blues Music Awards performance banquet.
IBC Week occurs over five days in the clubs and venues on Beale Street in Downtown Memphis. Blues acts representing affiliate organizations from around the world are divided into two categories: solo/duo competitors and a band competition. In addition to the challenge competition, IBC Week includes multiple events—screenings of blues documentary films, various roundtable discussions, a free health fair for the challengers, several showcase performances, and instrument/vocal master classes conducted by blues veterans.
Following Bad Temper Joe’s set, Vicki and I made our way to Wet Willie’s to watch a few other solo/duo acts. We walked in as Johnny Riley, a traditional-style blues artist from Houston finished his last song. The crowd applauded their approval. Riley vacated the stage as IBC judges, including local blues artist Mick Kolassa, tabulated their scores.
Challengers, as the IBC refers to the musicians, must adhere to a strict set of criteria and are evaluated on the originality of their music—although cover tunes are allowed—their singing and playing abilities, and their stage presence. The sound and feel of the blues, regardless of sub-category, must dominate each and every song played.
The next act, La Bedoune, had no problem conveying that bluesy sound and feel. The French duo were amazing. Their sultry blues captivated an ever-growing crowd. Blues fans are always eager to catch a hot, new act. That Friday night at Wet Willie’s, they were not disappointed.
Not only are the blues all right, they’re definitely international.
Let the Good Times Roll
On Saturday, Vicki and I spent the afternoon attending the National Women in Blues Showcase held at Alfred’s on Beale. Phenomenal vocals performed by veteran singers and newcomers alike, behind the backdrop of a Mother’s Day weekend. Women played a significant role in the commercial success of blues music in the early 20th Century and many Black women became its first stars. Women like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Mamie Smith, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace, and many others were all part of a golden age of female blues singers.
Women continue to play a significant role in today’s blues, drawing huge crowds of fans and headlining festivals around the world.
Back out on Beale, the masses hadn’t quite filled the two-block entertainment zone—that would come later in the evening when the Grizzlies took on the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of their NBA playoff series.
The sounds of an electric guitar being shredded draw us to Rum Boogie Café. We wandered in on an impromptu master class on guitar conducted by Billy Evanochko, aka Billy the Kid. His pupils were the members of The Blue Shoes, representing the Colorado Blues Society.
The Blue Shoes—still in high school and learning the craft—were, nonetheless, terrific musicians with an incredible stage presence. Absorbing Billy’s instruction and critique, they hung on every word, and every guitar riff, as the class eventually became a jam session.
The future of the blues is definitely in the hands of the next generation. A huge part of IBC Week is devoted to events for musicians and singers under the age of eighteen—in many cases, well under eighteen. The Blues Foundation has several programs and initiatives that help young blues artists develop their skills and confidence, and during IBC those young people get to strut their stuff in front of live audiences and a panel of judges.
Yes, the blues are all right, thanks to the younger generation.
When Love Comes to Town
IBC Week allows blues fans to mix and mingle—with each other and with their favorite blues artists—and to hear and meet the current challengers. Not many musical genres can boast that artists and fans have such a close bond. And certainly not many events—musical, sports, or otherwise—allow such close proximity.
Blues fans are why the blues remain alive and why the genre is stronger than ever. Even with COVID interruptions and re-scheduling IBC to the spring, well over 100 blues acts, including almost twenty acts from around the world, made it to Memphis for this year’s competition.
Seated next to me on an old barstool, Keeshea Pratt, lead singer of The Keeshea Pratt Band, took in the growing crowd and the music. On stage, the TC Carter Band created a booming beat reminiscent of John Lee Hooker (think Boogie Chillen’) or ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man. They played a rockin’ style of blues that would cause anyone tap their feet. Right behind us, Jonn Del Toro Richardson, guitarist extraordinaire, chatted with Grace Kuch and her mother, Jill. Grace, from Colorado, has been part of the blues scene most of her teenage years.
Gabe Stillman, who won the IBC’s Gibson Guitar Award back in 2019, comes in, gives a quick greeting to Jonn and Grace, then works his way through the crowd, heading to the stage.
Following a busy Mother’s Day Sunday full of IBC events and semifinals competition, Richardson hosted an All-Star Jam on the ground floor of Club 152, located in the heart of Beale Street. These 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.
Once the TC Carter Band finished their set, Pratt excused herself, while Richardson and Stillman setup for the first jam. We felt at home, surrounded by familiar names and faces, some of whom we know on a first name basis. That bond I mentioned earlier remains strong. Blues is just that way. Intimate. Alive. Personal.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder is absolutely true for the blues music community after a two-year delay due to COVID.
I (Don’t) Feel Like Going Home
For almost seventy-two hours, deeply immersed in the blues and Beale Street, nothing else seemed to matter. The world outside our music bubble, including a disappointing playoff loss, became background noise as musicians from around the country and around the world reunited on Beale Street for a good ol’ blues jam.
Yeah, the blues will be all right.
And I’m gonna tell you.
I said hey, hey, the blues is all right.
Hey, hey, the blues is all right.
I said hey, hey, the blues is all right.
Hey, hey, the blues is all right.
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.