Every year, Blues Foundation chief operating officer Joe Whitmer tallies the numbers and marvels. “260-plus acts from 38 states and 14 countries performing,” says Whitmer, rattling off the figures for the 2017 International Blues Challenge.
In addition to the main IBC competition — which will run for three nights on Beale Street before the finals at the Orpheum — the annual five-day extravaganza includes youth and international showcases and the Keeping the Blues Alive awards presentation, and is expected to draw an average of 3,000 attendees each night when it begins Tuesday (IBC wraps up Feb. 4).
The IBC will officially get going with a showcase of international acts Tuesday evening. The festivities will begin with a concert at the Clayborn Temple, which is free and open to the public. The bill will feature acts from Europe, Asia, Australia, North and South America, before even more international artists begin playing various venues on Beale at 9 p.m.
Blues Foundation president Barbra Newman says the free showcase at the historic Clayborn Temple — a 120-year-old Memphis landmark that played a key role during the civil rights movement and is currently undergoing renovations — is designed as a way of connecting with locals. “We really want Memphis to recognize that we’re here, and for our own citizens to come down and be part of the IBC. We have a phenomenal event that’s good for Memphis and Memphis music. And we want Memphians to participate in it with us.”
In past years, the International Showcase was a more limited event held at the New Daisy Theatre, but this year the Blues Foundation decided to expand the scope to accommodate the many acts traveling from Australia, Canada, Israel and the U.K., among others. “We’re trying to give the international acts as many opportunities to perform as possible, because they do come from so far, and it can be their once-in-a-lifetime shot to be seen on this stage and in the spotlight.”
In 2013, Ori Naftaly was a young Israeli guitarist who had traveled more than 10,000 miles to perform at the International Showcase and represent his home country in the IBC. Naftaly wowed audiences and became the first Israeli act to make it to the event's semifinals. On the strength of that appearance, Naftaly decided to come to the United States to pursue his musical dreams. This year, Naftaly — who relocated to Memphis in 2014 — will see his band Southern Avenue release its highly anticipated debut album on the Stax Records label.
For Naftaly, the IBC was the start of it all. “The IBC is a unique experience that brings the best out of every musician,” says Naftaly. “It opened the door to some of my wildest dreams. When I came back to Israel after the first time I competed, every bone in my body said that I need to go back and stay.”
Beyond the international showcase and official competition, the IBC is evolving back into a full-service music conference. In the past, there would panels, symposiums and networking opportunities, but that content decreased over time. Newman says with the 2017 event, the foundation is looking to build such programming back up.
“We’re going to have different activities for different sectors of folks who come to IBC,” says Newman. This year's keynote panel will feature musicians Walter Trout and Kenny Neal, author Dr. Marie Trout, and Patti Parks (a blues performer and nurse), talking about blues "as a healing source, how the music can help people heal physically, emotional, spiritually, etc.”
“We’re doing a handful of things that are really for the musicians — networking events, some master classes, a panel of do’s and don’ts on recording with (Royal Studios’) Boo Mitchell and (Sam Phillips Recording’s) Jeff Powell, and others," adds Newman. "For the affiliated blues societies, we’re going to have roundtables and business-oriented gatherings.”
Newman says that even as it evolves, the goal of the IBC remains consistent. “We want the people who come every year to have the most wonderful blues experience they can,” she says. “We want them to be able to connect with people who are part of the blues world, and we want them to be able to appreciate Memphis and what the city has to offer. This is the Foundation's home base; we’re proud of it. Beale Street has so much blues history; we want people to feel a part of that.”
2017 International Blues Challenge
The event runs Tuesday through Feb. 4 at various venues on and around Beale Street. The Blues Foundation is selling a $100 pass that covers all events. To purchase, go to blues.org, or call 901-527-2583. For a full list of acts, venues and more information, go to blues.org. Here are some highlights:
Tuesday: The International Showcase takes place at 5 p.m. at the Clayborn Temple, 294 Hernando. The event is free. Starting at 9 p.m. more international bands will be performing at various venues on Beale. Also free.
Wednesday and Thursday: Quarterfinals in both band and solo/duo competitions will be held in Beale Street venues. Wristbands are $10.
Friday, Feb. 3: Semifinals in both the band and solo/duo competitions will take place in Beale Street clubs. This also includes the Youth Showcase, which begins around 5 p.m. Wristbands are $15.
Saturday, Feb. 4: Doors open for the finals of band and solo/duo competitions at 11 a.m. at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main. Tickets are $46.50. They can be purchased at orpheum-memphis.com or at the door.
Bob Mehr-USA Today Network-Tennessee