The Blues Foundation held its 25th annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis from February 4th-7th, 2009. This year's challenge features 100 bands and 64 solo/duo acts from 36 states and 9 countries, including Canada, Australia, Israel, Italy, Norway, and, of course, the United States.
IBC winners are chosen in two categories - Blues Band and Solo/Duo Act - and the competitors are chosen by The Blues Foundation and affiliated organizations (mostly local and regional blues societies). Winners are chosen by their performances; IBC semi-final performances were held on Thursday and Friday at local Memphis clubs, and final competitions were held at The Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, February 7th.
Impressive Competition Every Year
To come out on top in the International Blues Challenge can be a real career-maker. The list of current blues artists who have participated in, or won the IBC is impressive, and includes such critical faves as Susan Tedeschi, Tommy Castro, Watermelon Slim, Jason Ricci, Albert Cummings, Eden Brent, and the late Sean Costello, among many others.
Prizes, including cash, gigs, instruments, and publicity services are awarded to the top three Blues Band and the top two Solo/Duo finalists, along with categories like "Best Guitarist" and "Best Self-Produced CD."
International Blues Challenge's Blues Band Winners, 2009
Blues-rock trio JP Soars and the Red Hots took first place in the Blues Band category. Sponsored by the South Florida Blues Society, Soars also took the IBC's "Best Guitarist" Awards.
John Paul "JP" Soars took an unlikely road to the blues. A music industry veteran with better than a decade of experience under his belt, Soars began playing guitar at the age of eleven while living with his family in Arkansas. A move to Florida in 1985 - when Soars was at the impressionable age of 16 - exposed the young guitarist to the sounds of bands like Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer.
Florida was a heavy metal hotbed during the 1980s, and it wasn't long before Soars was playing guitar in the metal band Paingod, which released one album on the Century Media label. After the break-up of that band, Soars performed and recorded with metal outfits like Malevolent Creation and Divine Empire, among others, his slashing fretwork appearing on a half-dozen albums.
While he was touring the world with metal bands, however, Soars became increasingly enamored of blues music and the "Gypsy jazz" of guitarist Django Reinhardt. Soars left Divine Empire in 2005 to concentrate on blues and jazz music, first forming the Gypsy Blue Acoustic Revue and, later, JP Soars and the Red Hots.
The band's MySpace page shows JP and the Red Hots pursuing a swinging blues sound not dissimilar to the Fabulous Thunderbirds or Roomful of Blues. Featuring Soars' rough-hewn, soulful vocals and his elegant, nimble-fingered guitar style, the band's mix of blues, blues-rock, and jazz is performed brilliantly and with loads of joyful energy.
Sponsored by the Cascade Blues Association, the Ty Curtis Band took second place in the IBC's Blues Band category, followed by MonkeyJunk in third place, sponsored by the Ottawa Blues Society.
International Blues Challenge's Solo/Duo Winners, 2009
Piedmont blues guitarist Little Joe McLerran earned first place for Solo/Duo with his old-school, acoustic-style approach to the country blues. Sponsored by the Blues Society of Tulsa, Little Joe is a young 24 years old chronologically, but the guitarist possesses an old soul with an undeniable blues heart. This was his fourth IBC appearance.
Born in Boulder, Colorado McLerran began playing Leadbelly songs at the ripe old age of eight, and a year later he was part of a duo with his younger brother Jesse, playing Big Bill Broonzy, Skip James, and Missisippi John Hurt songs at the local mall. When his family moved to Tulsa when McLerran was fifteen, he took on "Son Piedmont" as his performing name, his brother became "Washboard Jesse," and the pair continued to play the blues at a local bistro.
McLerran released his first CD in 2004, credited to Son Piedmont and The Blues Krewe. Sadly, his brother Jesse died in an accident before the release of the CD. McLerran has recorded and released two more CDs since, his repertoire including classic rags, Delta blues performed with a slide on a National Steel guitar, Piedmont blues, swing, and a wealth of songs by blues greats like Blind Blake, Tampa Red, Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Boy Fuller, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Homesick James, and others.
Blues legend Homesick James gave McLerran his "Little Joe" name after a particularly grueling road trip with McLerran serving as chauffer. These days Little Joe plays the blues club and festival circuit, and the IBC award is certain to raise the profile of this deserving blues artist. No less an authority than James, speaking of Little Joe, said "this kid is providing a service to humanity by carrying on this great tradition."
The duo of Alphonso & Richard, sponsored by the Crossroads Blues Society of Mississippi, took second place in the IBC Solo/Duo category. Nathan James and Ben Hernandez, Solo/Duo first place winners in the 2007 International Blues Challenge, were awarded the "Best Self-Produced CD" for their album Hollerin'!
Check with The Blues Foundation website for more information on the IBC and other foundation programs.