It was another great experience in Memphis during this January’s International Blues Challenge. And for all those who stayed away because they were afraid of the bitter cold that we experienced last year, you missed out on the mild weather that was had this year. What’s even better? The Northwest Blues Societies’ acts are really beginning to make more of a mark on the international scene each year.

Five blues societies from the Northwest sent nine acts and a youth group to Memphis. Five acts, one from each of the societies, made the semi-finals, and one made it all the way to The Orpheum Theater for the finals. All played their hearts out and gave performances that we should be proud of. As I have stated many times, it is not about the winning the competition that is most important — it is the impact you make for yourself. Winning would be great, but it is something that is not going to happen very often. There were more than 250 blues acts from all around the world, and only one of them can be named as the winner. And all of those acts are out of this world good.

The acts that represented the Northwest were: Ben Rice & Lucy Hammond (solo/duo) and Tracey Fordice & The 8 Balls (band) from the Ashland Blues Society; David Pinsky & Phil Newton (solo/duo) and the Rae Gordon Band from the Cascade Blues Association; Walker T Ryan (solo) and the Randy Oxford Band from the Rainy Day Blues Society; CD Woodbury Band from South Sound Blues Association; and Nick Vigarino (solo) and the Rafael Tranquilino Band from the Washington Blues Society.

Ben Rice & Lucy Hammond, the Rae Gordon Band, the Randy Oxford Band, the CD Woodbury Band, and the Rafael Tranquilino Band all made it through to the semi-finals after the first two nights.

The finals were held in The Orpheum Theater early Saturday afternoon. The only NW act to make it to this level was Ben Rice & Lucy Hammond. They were the third act second act (not sure which here) scheduled for the day and delivered a masterful set that made the entire region proud.

But when it comes down to the end, the judges selected the following as the 2015 International Blues Challenge winners: Band competition 1st place: Eddie Cotton (Vicksburg Blues Society), 2nd place: Noah Wotherspoon (Dayton Blues Society), 3rd place: Nico Wayne Toussaint’s Mighty Quartet (Southern California Blues Society. Solo/Duo competition: 1st place: Randy McQuay (Cape Fear Blues Society), 2nd place: Brian Keith Wallen (Dayton Blues Society).

Individual awards were also handed out to the Best Self-Produced CD to Altered Five Blues Band for their disc Cryin’ Mercy; the Lee Oskar Harmonica Player award to Nico Wayne Toussaint; the Gibson Guitar award for band guitarist to Noah Wotherspoon; and the St Blues

Cigar Box Guitar award for solo/duo guitarist went to our own Ben Rice! Congratulations Ben Rice!!

There are many other events that take place during the International Blues Challenge, including the Keeping The Blues Alive awards. And this year’s recipient of the KBA for best festival went to Erika Olsen for Washington’s Winthrop Blues Festival! Erika was on hand along with the Waterfront’s Peter Dammann not only to pick up this honor, but obviously to scout out new talent for their festivals.

A new event that was put together this year for the first time was the Pacific Northwest Showcase. The brainchild of Washington Blues Society president Tony Frederickson, it was held at Club 152 on Beale Street on Friday afternoon, hosted by Tony, Cascade Blues Association president Greg Johnson, and South Sound Blues Association president Jane Henderson. Each of the nine acts from the Northwest took part in this showcase, along with South Sound’s youth act Emily Randolph & Oaklawn, and special appearances by past contestant Sammy Eubanks and 2010 second place winner Karen Lovely who was joined by Houston’s Jonn Del Toro Richardson on guitar. This was an exciting and popular day, so hopefully it can be done again.

Overall, the 31st International Blues Challenge proved once again that it keeps growing and getting better every year. And the Pacific Northwest is right in the thick of things, turning a lot of heads with the incredible musicians we possess in our little corner of the country. Make plans to attend in Memphis next year, but between now and then make it a point to support all the acts attempting to go in 2016, the regional competitions and the fundraising to help them get there. It’s not easy to reach that level, but once there you’re among some of the very best.