Memphis has long been known as the “home of the blues,” a moniker that’s on display this week at the annual International Blues Challenge.
Trumpet player Mitchell Brown and saxophonist Mark Froelke of Curtis Marlatt and the Kicks play at B.B. King's Blues Club on Beale Street on Wednesday as part of the International Blues Challenge. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
The event, which draws participants from around the world, kicked off Tuesday with the opening FedEx International Showcase at the New Daisy Theatre and continues through Saturday.
The rain, wind and cold temperatures that greeted participants at Tuesday’s opening night didn’t deter the enthusiasm.
“It’s colder than I expected,” said Mihael Vlah, who traveled from Poland as a member of the Kajetan Drozd Acoustic Trio, one of the 20 international acts featured in the FedEx International Showcase.
The competition draws musicians from around the globe to compete in a battle of blues bands that culminates on Saturday at The Orpheum Theatre at 2 p.m. Participants have come from Australia, Israel, Italy, Finland, Norway, Germany France, Canada and Croatia.
The festival has grown through the years, bringing more contestants but also greater complexity to the event. This year is starting earlier than ever.
“It’s just like a basketball tournament. When you add more teams, you add more rounds,” said Jay Sieleman, executive director of the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving blues music history. The IBC is one of the Blues Foundation’s signature events.
This year there are some 200 acts including 110 contestants in the band competition and more than 80 people competing in the solo/duo division.
No matter who wins Saturday’s judging the city of Memphis will be a big winner.
“You’ve got to understand that only about 10 percent of (participants) are Memphians,” said Mike Glenn, owner of the New Daisy Theatre and Beale Street Merchant Association board member. The association sponsors the IBC.
Several Downtown hotels are booked to capacity and restaurant managers are preparing for larger than average crowds.
Carlos Malles of Spain poses for a picture by Lorea Mendizabal after the dedication of a musical note for blues musician Rosco Gordon on Beale Street as part of the International Blues Challenge. The pair are in Memphis scouting for talent for the Hondarribia Blues Festival in Spain’s Basque Country.
“We have 10 hotels partnering with us,” Sieleman said. “Every Downtown hotel benefits. The Doubletree is completely sold out and they have a four-night minimum.”
Meetings and conventions can mean big business. According to the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the average convention delegate in the city spends about $400 per day. International visitors average a three-night stay with an average daily room rate of about $80, which with the various hotel and sales taxes, events like the IBC generates much-needed dollars.
“Personally, for my business, this is the second-busiest weekend of the year,” said Ty Agee, owner of Miss Polly’s Soul City Café and president of the Beale Street Merchants Association. “Winter can be horrible down here. So to know you have four to five solid days, really is a blessing.”
And so far this week, the event seems to be a blessing to the participants as well even if the path to Memphis wasn’t always easy.
Isaiah B. Brunt came all the way from Sydney, Australia – the hard way.
“I went from Sydney, to L.A. to Atlanta, then to Nashville and took a bus to Memphis,” said the very dedicated Brunt of his 27-hour pilgrimage. “I would not recommend that to anybody.”
Brunt uses blues at home as part of an outreach program in neighborhoods where poverty and drugs present challenges for kids from the aboriginal cultures.
“You cannot just go into those communities,” Brunt said. “You have to be invited. Blues seems to bring happiness and hope to these places.”
To be entered in the IBC, acts had to be sponsored by local blues societies who hold competitions to send only their best to Memphis. There were 195 affiliated societies that participated this year. Dues from these societies cover the considerable travel expenses.
The event runs through Saturday with acts at most Beale Street clubs. Visit www.blues.org/ibc for more information.