Blues promotion and preservation member organization The Blues Foundation puts on a couple of big programs in Memphis each year: in May, a Blues Music Awards (BMA) gala celebrates the best of the blues from the past year, including performances from many nominees and other top names in the genre, and, each January, an International Blues Challenge (IBC) competition draws rising blues acts from around the world, all hoping to earn the title of that year’s best solo/duo or band winner and the recognition that comes with it, including opportunities such as professional recording contracts and festival appearances.
While the foundation has been putting out CDs and DVDs featuring performance highlights from each of the BMA ceremonies since 2011 or so, and a few earlier CDs also celebrated W.C. Handy Award (as the BMAs used to be known) winners and nominees, last year’s International Blues Challenge #32 was really the first recording allowing listeners to hear some of what we’ve been missing at the annual IBC, with the album leaving us both mighty satisfied as well as hopeful that we might be treated to similar installments spotlighting future IBC participants.
So we were of course pleased to learn about the release of International Blues Challenge #33, a collection featuring finalists from the 2017 competition that, like the inaugural edition, does an excellent job of showing that the blues is still very much alive and well and in many diverse forms.
Though the names of the acts on the IBC collections may not be as well-known as those you’ll hear on the BMA sets, the music itself is surprisingly solid: if you didn’t happen to know to what you were listening, there are times during IBC33 at which you could easily wonder if you’re hearing a disc of rare blues classics from much more experienced, established artists — or perhaps even some BMA nominees (although one of the criteria for eligibility in the challenge is that artists can’t have been nominated for a BMA).
One such point comes a little more than halfway through the CD with a swinging, finger-lickin’ good, horns- and keys-accented Sista’ Monica Parker-kind-of-number from The Souliz Band featuring Sugar & Spice (Tampa, FL) in “Good Lovin (Hot & Fresh from the Oven)”, followed by the acoustic, front-porch Delta blues stylings of Felix Smith’s “I Hate You Cause I Love You” with its croaking vocals and “That’s No Way to Get Along” country sound.
“Good Lovin” is but one of several tracks with strong female vocals, including a gospelish treat from the challenge’s overall band winner Dawn Tyler Watson (Montreal) in the opening “Shine On” that’s filled with soulful vocals, horns, and upbeat lyrics and rhythm; the quiet, rootsy and creeping “I Don’t Have Proof” from solo competitor Ruth Wyand & the Tribe of One (Kill Devil Hills, NC); and a man-fixin’ number from Rae Gordon & the Backstreet Drivers (Portland, OR) in the swinging “Elbow Grease”.
There are also a couple of real rockers: the Sobo Blues Band’s (Israel) chugging country-rocking “Catfish Boogie” with its muddy harmonica and guitar somewhat reminiscent of a JJ Grey & Mofro or the recently disbanded Moreland & Arbuckle, and King Bee’s (Montgomery, AL) steady rolling “Dangerous”. Not to mention a party song of sorts in Johnny Fink & The Intrusion’s (Cincinnati, OH) shuffling “Let’s Hear Some Blues” — one we’re sure went over well with the IBC audiences between its group chorus, gritty harp, familiar blues guitar riffs, and clanking bottles — as well as a breezy, countryish tune about preparing for the end of the world from Brody Buster’s One Man Band (Kansas City, MO) in “2029” (“‘cuz they say the next one, will fall from the sky, September 23rd, 2029”) on which Buster demonstrates some of the skill that helped earn him best harmonica player honors in this year’s competition in addition to second place recognition in the solo/duo category.
Taking first place in that category was Nashville, Tennessee’s Al Hill, who also was recognized as the competition’s best solo guitarist, but here takes a turn on piano for one of the album’s best tracks, a deeply soulful, classic-sounding “Don’t Dig Today”. Randy McQuay (Wilmington, NC) and Wes Lee (Mississipppi) also both turn in nice solo performances, with the former delivering the slow-shuffling “Til I Get to Memphis” and the latter, a spare, rootsy, Alvin Youngblood Hart-like “Chains That Bind”, while keyboardist Sam Joyner (Tunica, Mississippi) turns on the soul grooves with a “Last Two Dollars”-ish “Onions Ain’t the Only Thing” and Sugar Brown (Toronto) closes off the album with the stripped-down, swaying country blues of “Meet Me in the Country”.
Recognizing that these collections represent just a fraction of the music you’d hear from each of these artists — along with hundreds of others — at the IBC, the real challenge for the listener will be to resist the temptation of going straight online and booking the first available ticket to Memphis for the 2018 edition of the event coming up in now just a few short weeks, with these CDs serving as probably the most effective advertisement for the challenge the foundation could offer.