Greg Johnson, CBA President

Well, the 2016 International Blues Challenge is now in the books. When you consider the previous few years, the weather decided to cooperate with us for once. As the East Coast was being hammered with torrential winter storms before the event, for a change, the temperatures in Memphis were mild rather than freezing. And the only rain during the week came twice, late at night when everyone had pretty much already gone back to the places where they were staying.

Events began on Tuesday night with several venues hosting participants from twelve countries beyond the United States taking part. As your Portland area representatives as volunteers, I worked as the venue host at Club 152 while Cherie Robbins held the same duty at Pig On Beale. It was a chance for these acts who traveled from all corners of the world to have an extra chance to play.

Speaking of the acts, not only were thirteen countries total represented, but a total of 121 bands,  94 solo/duo groups and 42 youth acts took part in the event. All were already winners of their own regional competitions.

The Northwest had a strong showing, starting out Wednesday morning before the competition even began as representatives from the four regional blues societies participating this year were showcased at a day-long performance at Club 152. The perfect location as The Blues Foundation’s merchandise store, band CD sales, and will call for passes pick up were on the second floor, meaning that everybody who went up that way were treated to music from the Northwest. And many of those folks decided to stay and listen all day.

The Northwest was represented by acts from not only the Cascade Blues Association (Sister Mercy – band; Rogue Rage Duo – solo/duo; Justus Reece – youth), but also the Washington Blues Society (James Howard Band; Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons – solo/duo), South Sound Blues Association (King Kom Beau – band; Doug Skoog & Brian Fiest – solo/duo; Emerald City Blues Band – youth) and the White Rock Blues Society (Arsen Shomakhov Band; Jesse Roper – solo/duo).

Cherie and I worked together during the week in Club 152 for the quarter-and-semi-finals, Wednesday through Friday. We did not have any of the Northwest acts perform in our venue, but she had the opportunity to catch a little bit of our CBA acts.

Rogue Rage Duo unfortunately did not advance to the semi-finals, but speaking with both Harpo and Dan they were pleased with their performance and felt strongly that they might have moved forward. Regardless, they said they made some great contacts and friends and will most likely see extra gigs their way coming up.

SisterMercy IBC at the Tin Roof - photo courtesy of Sister MercySister Mercy played their first night on a big stage at the Tin Roof. Talking with the venue coordinator from that room he told me that they were his favorite act in the quarterfinals in his room. He said the crowd ate up their vocal harmonies and choreographed dance moves. Even the judges were said to be dancing along with the band and they advanced to the semi-finals on Friday night at Blues City Café on a much smaller stage, but in front of a crowd that packed to the seams. This would be their final performance in the competition. But it is a feat to be proud of as of the thousands of acts that compete to get to Memphis, only 250 or so make it, and that number is cut in a third for Friday, and only eight bands and eight solo/duo acts make it to the finals. And they surely caught the attention of many people in the blues industry who can advance their careers ahead.

Justus Reece was able to take part in the youth showcase, playing at Silky O’Sullivan’s. He and his father traveled to Nashville before Memphis and he was able to sight-see a number of historical music places in both cities. His father, Geoffrey Reece, commented about how much good music they heard and how incredibly talented the kids participating in the youth showcase were. He also said that Justus is already trying to figure out a way to come back to the IBC.

Friday morning Cherie and I attended the Keeping the Blues Alive Award luncheon, where I was one of fifteen recipients of the honor this year. It was an amazing feeling to be recognized, but having Cherie with me made me especially proud as was having her working the event all week with me. I wouldn’t have dreamed of being there with anyone else. It was also a treat to be introduced by Jay Sieleman and to have so many friends in the room, including Karen Lovely, Hawkeye Greg Johnson and Cherie Robbins with KBA award - photo by Cinda WatermanHerman and Dick & Cinda Waterman who asked to sit with us at our table. Thank you for being there.

On Saturday, we were at the finals in The Orpheum Theater where I was working as one of the stage managers. Everybody has their own opinion of who should have or should not have made the finals, but I have to say I was impressed with a lot of the acts on that stage and happy to see personal friends Ori Naftaly, Dave Muskett, and Micah Kesselring among them. I felt that the overall winning act, The Delgado Brothers was definitely the right choice. They were by far the best act on that stage that day. But as anybody who has been a part of the IBC for any amount of time knows, it can all be different on any given day, depending on who your judges are and their feelings about the music presented. But again, I always point out to those who state music is not a competition. True, but how else can you bring so many quality acts to one location with so many industry people looking for new acts in the genre?

It was truly a great feeling to see one of the Northwest acts, Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons, win the solo/duo competition. From my first time watching them I felt that they were bringing something new to the event, though their music is very traditional in its format of string and jug band music, the true root of original blues. They were fresh and a change of pace that the judges and audience ate up and deservingly so. Congratulations to Ben & Joe and the Washington Blues Society.

And congratulations to all the musicians, fans, volunteers, Blues Foundation staff, and Beale Street Merchants. Everybody in Memphis was a winner this week for one of the very best IBCs ever. It really is one of the grandest events, not only in the blues world, but the music world itself; it’s the future of the blues seen today.