A Gathering of the Blues – The International Blues Challenge in Memphis
We have been extraordinarily lucky with our timing on this trip, being in Nashville for the Colgate Country showdown final, and now, being in Memphis for the International Blues Challenge – an amazing gathering of hundreds of blues bands and musicians from all over the world, playing over several nights in all of the venues of Beale Street. Simply buying a $10 dollar wristband gained you entry at will to any and all of the venues to watch the competition unfold. Each band has the task over two nights, of ‘winning their venue’ and then progressing to the grand final at the Orpheum theatre.
Words can hardly describe how I felt as I stepped onto Beale last night, it was alive with blues afficianados, wandering from club to club, or simply hanging in the streets soaking it all up. I opted to start the night in BB King’s – the legendary bluesman’s original club, where I chugged down a beer and a Beale street sub sandwich while I watched Ali Penney and the Moneymakers and The R & K Brew Co. The standard was high, and I looked forward to the rest of the night, opting to head out of BB’s and into the Superior, two doors down. There I saw a few numbers by Art Harris and the Z – tones, who were more of a swing outfit, boasting a huge double bass, theatrically manipulated by its owner, and sax, and certainly had the house rocking.
Next up was a return to the Rum Boogie Cafe, where Miki and I had eaten the other night. The place was absolutely bouncing, courtesy of the Nico Wayne Toussaint Band, who were absolutely ripping the place up, the best band I saw all night, great blues harp from front man Nico, a man possessed, dressed in a red suit and bizzarely reminiscent of the late British actor Leonard Rossiter, dancing like a dervish, ably assisted by his band, and a sh*t-hot guitarist to boot. They had the audience in the palm of their hand, and I will be surprised if they don’t win their venue this week. They take the stage again tomorrow night, and I hope to be there.
They were followed by the Crossroads blues band, with a frontman also dressed in red , topped by a red fedora, making him look a little like Junior Wells in Blues Brothers 2000. Their guitarist wasn’t up to the standard of Nico’s and their set was a little slow to get going, but their ‘me and baby brother’-style funk-tinged closer was excellent. For my taste, a full set of that stuff would’ve been great.
I headed further down Beale into the Hard Rock Cafe where I grabbed a coffee to offset the beers, unsure of the driving regs over here, and caught a few songs by Cee Cee James. Her band was pretty good and her voice, every now and then strayed into Janis territory. I felt that when she pushed it she sounded pretty good, but it’s not easy singing like that! The band that followed, Jen and Tonic, really didn’t do it for me, so I drained the coffee and headed to Alfred’s.
I was just in time to see a band who I thought was the Thornetta Davis band take the stage, but as Thornetta herself has pointed out to me, I was completely wrong, it was someone else! As they spoke before starting it sounded like a couple of them were English, but they were introduced as from somewhere in the States. In any event, the girl vocal just didn’t work in a blues format for me at all, and I was out before the second chorus. I missed the Thornetta Davis band because the evening was running late at Alfreds, but you should check out her album on the link she provides in the comments on my follow up article over on Cafe Crem.
As I walked up the street, I poked my head in Rum Boogie, Club 152, Superior, as artists continued to give their best. Blues filled the night air, and I felt the ghosts of Memphis walking Beale proudly, surveying the keepers of their legacy.
A final stop at BB’s before driving home and I managed to catch a band called Blackburn – who were indeed three brothers from Toronto and a black bassist – amusingly introduced as their ‘brother from another mother’!! I only stayed for one song, but I certainly want to check them out next time. The guitarist attacked his Strat with a Townsend-style frenzy chopping out great blues-funk chords that cut through you like razor-wire. Great stuff.
As I walked off into the night, I felt like I’d been dipped in a great vat of Blues Gumbo, filled with every variety of the genre, every influence from far and wide, all brought together here on this street which taught the world that black and white could not only live together, but make sweet music.
Why not read about the Second night of the challenge over on Cafe Crem?