When I heard that DJ Johnson was going to re-launch Cosmik Debris, I was excited to return to one of my favorite online musical resources. At first, I thought DJ was off his meds. Didn't he know that Cosmik.com was a lot of work? Didn't he know that editing me was actually a full-time job?
I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute Eric Steiner's Cosmik Blues once again to the screens of Cosmik.com, and look forward to introducing Cosmik readers to blues events and blues bands that I enjoy. I had the good fortune to return to Memphis for the 2007 International Blues Challenge as a volunteer judge this past February at two Beale Street venues. In a few moments, you'll see why I think the IBC is the place to be, for blues fans and blues bands, the first weekend of February.
The IBC is the Place to Be!
The IBC is the world's largest gathering of unsigned blues bands, and there's no other blues event in the world that rivals the scope or sheer size of the IBC. Over the course of three days, over 150 bands compete in 17 venues in the band and solo/duo categories, and each band represents a local Blues Foundation-affiliated Blues Society.
While the live music that poured out of Beale Street clubs at night was exceptional, the seminars and lunch buffets hosted by the Blues Foundation during the day introduced me to a range of local, regional, and national blues talent. Bands competed in Beale Street venues like the Hard Rock Café, Wet Willie's, the New Daisy Theatre, and the 2007 Keeping the Blues Alive award-winning Rum Boogie Café (the perennial home of Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin's All-Star jam on Friday night). Solo/duo acts from around the world played at such intimate venues as the King's Palace Café, Mr. Handy's Blues Hall, The Pig on Beale, and two floors of Club 152.
During the day, the IBC offered seminars that rivaled any graduate school of the blues. Michael "Hawkeye" Herman, a national Blues in the Schools pioneer, led a fascinating discussion suitable for school-trained educators as well as occasional non-musical volunteers like me: there was something for everyone. I met fellow Blues in the Schools leader Fruteland Jackson at Hawkeye's workshop, and Electro-Fi recording artist Jackson described his diverse approaches to bringing blues together with English, Math, History, and other academic subjects from his home base in Dyer, Indiana.
Keeping the Blues Alive
The Keeping the Blues Alive luncheon, however, was one of the many, many high points of the 2007 IBC - and well worth the Big Blue Ticket package. I'd read the work of Blues Revue contributor Art Tipaldi for many, many years, and I'd never dreamed that we'd be exchanging business cards so that we might work together in the future. Meeting record company executives like Fred Litwin of Northern Blues, Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, Randy Chortkoff of Delta Groove Productions, Thomas Ruf of Ruf Records, and Michael Powers of Yellow Dog Records was a real thrill, and it was good to see the camaraderie and professionalism that these men shared. Collectively, this small group of blues record labels work together to keep the blues alive in very difficult economic times for the record business in general. Thomas Ruf took home the 2007 KBA for his Ruf Records, and Seattle's Jef Jaisun received the 2007 KBA for photography, and as soon as he entered the ballroom at the Doubletree, he did what he does best: he unpacked his camera and started shooting pictures.
Big Blue or Baby Blue?
There are two ticket packages available to IBC attendees: the Big Blue at $150 is the big enchilada that gets you in to the opening night cocktail reception, several lunches and breakfasts, the Saturday night IBC finals at the Orpheum Theatre, blues workshops and seminars, and admission to Beale Street venues. Baby Blue laminates at $75 get you into the 17 clubs alone, but that's still a blues bargain. Of course, I'd highly recommend that you get your Big Blue tickets the day they are released: this year's Big Blue tickets sold out many weeks in advance. This year's opening night cocktail reception featured Janiva Magness on drums and washboard, 2006 IBC winner Eden Brent on keyboards, and Gary "Scruff" Davenport on bass from the Janiva Magness Band. It was a great way to launch three unforgettable days of great blues.
[Pictured: Deb Seitz. Photo by Rhea Rolfe.]
This year, I returned as an IBC judge: on Thursday, I was at Wet Willies, and on Friday, the New Daisy Theatre. My favorite acts from Wet Willie's were the Walker Smith Group from Florida, Black Magic Johnson from Central Illinois, and WSNB (an acronym that roughly translates as "We Sing Nasty Blues," although it's probably the initials of the band members' first names) out of North Carolina. On Friday at the New Daisy Theatre, Sweet Suzi and the Blues Experience got my attention all the way from Long Island, New York, while Rusty Wright Blues played a solid set rooted in their native Detroit. I also liked the energetic Patti Parks Band from Western New York, and Deb Seitz and the Swank Daddys represented the Blues Blowtorch Society out of Bloomington, Illinois. In order to see more blues next year up and down Beale Street, I'll opt for judging one night instead of two.
Beale Street Snapshots
[Pictured: Sweet Suzi of Sweet Suzi and the Blues Experience. Photo by Suzanne Foschino.]
The first night, Washington Blues Society President Rhea Rolfe took me to karaoke. I had never been to karaoke before, I can barely pronounce it. Before I knew it, Becki Sue of Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin' Daddies signed up, and Deb Seitz of Deb Seitz and the Swank Daddys joined Rhea in poring over the karaoke songbooks at Alfred's on Beale. One of the many highlights of that night was Mack Potts, the sax player from the Ben Rice Band, when he joined Seitz onstage with a sultry version of "Summertime."
The second and third nights flew by in a blues blur, but I heard that Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin' Daddies played two outstanding sets at the Hard Rock Café. It was heartening for me to see the Pacific Northwest well-represented at this year's IBC, with the Michal Millar Band from the South Sound Blues Association, our own Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin' Daddies, the Ben Rice Band from the Cascade Blues Association in Portland. Although I didn't catch Becki Sue and the guys this trip, I had heard from many Beale Streeters that they put on a terrific show.
One of the most important moments for competing bands is around midnight on Friday. That's when the judges' scoresheets are tabulated, and that the Blues Foundation announces the eight lucky bands that compete in the finals on Saturday night. While my blues society's band, Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin' Daddies, band didn't make it to the finals, they still have the considerable bragging rights that affords bands who make it to Beale Street. Many bands told me that they return two and three times over the years, and some even join other socieities for this opportunity. For more information on this year's winners, please visit www.blues.org.
A Final Word from Jef
[2007 Keeping the Blues Alive Award winners: Jef Jaisun (photography) and Thomas Ruf (Record label). Photo by Eric Steiner]
I'll close by paraphrasing some of Jef Jaisun's remarks from the podium as he picked up his Keeping the Blues Alive Award. The centerspread of the 96-page IBC program book featured a collage of Jef's pictures, and his words continue to resonate within me, and will for a long time to come as I share Jef's passion for blues music.
In the 70's, Jef heard that Luther Allison was putting on blistering four hour blues shows at festivals in Europe and in America, and there was no way he was going to miss them. So, he packed up his camera, and made it his business to see blues legends all across the world. Thankfully, he hasn't stopped since.
I've been to two IBCs and one Blues Music Awards ceremony, but one thing's for sure: there's no way I'm going to miss another IBC or BMA show in Memphis!
I'm sending this story in from the French Quarter in New Orleans during a break in the National Youth Employment Coalition conference for my day job at Casey Family Programs. Upcoming Cosmik Blues columns will likely include a celebration of New Orleans music, a report from the 2007 Chicago Blues Festival, select concert reviews, and my impressions of 2007 Blues Music Awards at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis in May. If you have any suggestions for topics you'd like to see in Eric Steiner's Cosmik Blues, please let me know at email@example.com.
Until then, let's play the blues!