Two feet off the ground was applicable to some members of the Steve Brown band contingency who attended the Memphis International Blues Challenge (MIBC) during the worst cold snap in the living memory of a Memphis cab driver (56 years, he said). Snow, black ice and temperatures extending to minus15 created walking hazards for the unwary or inattentive. I was one of them but escaped injury by falling onto the person walking beside me!
Thanks to an exciting international music arts initiative managed locally by ARBA (Adelaide Roots and Blues Association), the Steve Brown Band and blues soloist JJ Fields (Savas Palaktsoglou) were sponsored to perform and compete at the International blues challenge held annually at the world-famous home of the Memphis blues - Beale Street.
Nearly 300 challengers from the US and around the world congregate to compete in a raft of categories; solo, duo, band, best harmonica etc, having won the privilege by competing in a local contest held in the band’s or artist’s hometown or State.
The South Australian representatives compete in heats organised by ARBA in front of live audiences and independent panels of judges. Outright winners are sponsored through many and varied fundraising efforts organised by the ARBA crew.
It is fair to say that the “journey to Memphis” as such begins in earnest once the local winners are announced and there is, from that time on, considerable thrashing of paddles under the water to keep the boat afloat and moving in the right direction. ARBA’s indefatigable Mick Young provided the finalists’ main propulsion for the flotilla from SA to Tennessee while SBB guitar/songwriter David Rhodes ensured the boys fulfilled their obligations for the tour and duties included liaison with ARBA as well as the Memphis competition organisation and the many and varied agencies that have a passing interest in travellers to the US.
Beale Street - Peel Street parallel (Tamworth music festival) - is a cacophony of rockin’ blues music with some venues a mere 10 metres apart. Only the cold weather closed doors/windows situation provided some noise-abatement effect. It is patently clear, though, that most of the contestants understand the meaning of “competition”; slackers are given short shrift and the bands that shine do so with their own inner fire and outward enthusiasm. And wailing guitars and harmonicas!
A Blues purist might not find what he/she is looking for unless one lifts every rock and snow drift in and around Beale Street. Some artists “tip the hat” to the blues legends but for many it was simply showtime when the buzzer rang. Glitzy, bright coloured clothes and jackets, persistent, fiery guitars, rehearsed “spontaneous” choreography and crowd-mingling theatrics were best received by audiences and judges. Some of the musicianship and vocal performances on stage tended to leave one’s ego a little deflated and wondering if there was still enough time left to practice a bit more.
While being plainly and often stipulated on the performance regulations as 75% essential, originality was often thin on the snow-covered ground and sometimes embarrassingly akin to “sounds-like” versions - no names will be mentioned but changing the lyrics to an existing well-known blues tune is not very original! (my opinion). And, also in my opinion, more than a few of the acts appeared not too dissimilar to a Convention Centre corporate style blues review. (Claws in, please!)
Some of the solo/duo artists could have been doing their “Jules” blues set. (Claws in, I said!!) But, as previously mentioned, the good ones were talked about way into the wee hours with glowing words and phrases.
By the end of the heats good-ness triumphed and the finals crowd that packed the magnificent Orpheum Theatre were treated to what our mob thought in general was a pretty solid lineup of international talent and well worth the long session - noon till 7-30-ish - and the numb bum that ensued. The “All-Star” Blues review band that covered the sound of the judges quills tallying the results on parchment was a little flat, however, having none of the razz that the actual competitors splashed around the joint - just a bit of old-school talent!
For this insight into an obviously alive and kicking, and lucrative industry, our local participation in the MIBC is eminently worthwhile and should be encouraged. Competitors fly in from around the world and the Americas, friends are made, contacts established (or re-established) and new ideas and performance styles are played out before the eyes and ears of all. It would be a dense or cynical musician who did not take home a bit of that spark which, given the right conditions, could translate into an updated and exciting era in this genre of musical entertainment.
On behalf of the Steve Brown Band and JJ Fields, I extend our thanks and appreciation for the opportunity to see the wide world of Blues in action, up close and personal, and look forward to a future opportunity to get in the running.
Denis Surmon on behalf of the Steve Brown band and JJ Fields.