A Convention Full Of Blues
Iíve been a blues fan for as long as I can remember. In fact, most of what I play on the guitar is blues related. My work as a writer has also been focused primarily on blues music, including blues artists both past and present. With my attention so centered in this area, one would think Iím a permanent fixture at blues festivals and conventions. Iím afraid to say, sadly enough. I have yet to attend either. Fed up with sitting on the sidelines, I finally attended my very first blues convention this year. The BluesFirst Convention and Expo, is an annual event held each February in the blues capital of the world, Memphis, Tennessee.
Text and photos by Pamela L. Dow (June 2002)
Most of what I know about this convention comes by way of reading articles and newsletters. The information gathered from both doesnít come close to all the information made available by being there. Participating in the scheduled events each day, gave me a greater appreciation for the full scope and significance of this convention. A variety of issues are presented during the three day event, including a "battle of the bands" type format each evening. Blues societies and organizations from all across the U.S. and the world, joined together to celebrate their favorite genre. Being my first convention, I was a bit unsure of what to expect. Those feelings of uncertainty were immediately laid to rest, by the warm reception and hospitality shown to me by everyone in attendance. People from all walks of life participated, from white and blue collar workers, to those who were retired and unemployed. Regardless of who they were, or where they came from, the common thread they all shared was their genuine love for the music. These true blues enthusiasts, hold a deep respect for the genreís past and carry a positive outlook towards itís future. By the end of the first day, I felt more like part of a family, then just another member.
The BluesFirst Convention and Expo, is a annual event facilitated by The Blues Foundation and the Blues Music Association, both non-profit organizations located in Memphis. Their mission: preserve the history of blues music, celebrate the blues genre, support the education of blues music throughout the country, and continue efforts for the genreís successful future. The Blues Foundation represents well over 100 Affiliate Blues Societies/ Organizations and individual memberships throughout the U.S. and 26 other countries worldwide. The continued growth in membership was evident by the large numbers in attendance at this years event. The success of this three day convention, is by and large due to itís well structured format.
The convention centered on two major areas, education and entertainment. Each day was scheduled with workshops, seminars, and meetings that covered a variety of topics important to the membership and future of the blues. The workshops dealt with sponsorship issues, media relations, and the role of radio. There were seminars on creating new blues societies with specific issues of board members, the IRS, and building membership. There were also seminars that focused on career issues for those artists and bands ready to turn professional. The schedule also provided an opportunity to sit down "one on one" with those music industry leaders who volunteered their time to answer questions and give advice. Those representing the music industry covered, radio, artist management, agents, and record labels like Alligator and Rounder. Each day also provided a general Q & A panel, where the membership could network with these same industry leaders in an informal setting. Along with a daily schedule of seminars and workshops, the evenings were equally lined up with activities. Although the convention was squarely centered around the business and educational aspects of the genre, plenty of time was earmarked for the entertainment portion of this three day event. Letís face it, a blues convention in Memphis without music, would be like pie a la mode without the ice cream, or even worse!
The entertainment portion of the convention is better known as the International Blues Challenge(IBC). The 18th Annual IBC is a culmination of regional competitions held by many of the affiliated blues societies from here in the U.S. as well as from other countries. The winners from those competitions then moved on to compete in the prestigious IBC event. The basic formula used was quite similar to a "battle of the bands" type round-robin competition. In total, over 50 bands and solo performers were in competition for well over $20,000 in cash and prizes. Each night of competition was filled with some of the very best blues music by these unknown artists. Both individual and band division contestants, represented many different styles, from the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana Bayou, to the Texas and Chicago sound of electric blues. Each of these solo and band contestants gave a powerful and passionate performance, playing their hearts out, all hoping to avoid elimination and move on to the finals.
The band quarter finals and solo competition kicked off Friday evening, at several blues clubs up and down Beale St. The band semi-finals concluded Saturday night and a winner of the solo competition was also decided. The Solo act honors went to Little Toby Walker from the Long Island Blues Society. The IBC band finals were held Sunday evening at the New Daisy Theater, with five bands competing for the top prize. The IBC Competition is an important event to win, many past winners have gone on to receive national attention. This years five finalists were, Smokehouse Dave and the BBQ Kings from the Crossroads Blues Society, The Handy Three from the Beale Street Blues Society, The Nicole Nelson Band from the Boston Blues Society, The Tyree Neal Band from the Baton Rouge Society, Chef Chris and his Nairobi Trio from the Canada South Blues Society, and The Fat Daddy Band from the Charlotte Blues Society. During the competition, the judges also decide upon the most promising guitar player from the five finalists. The winner receives the coveted, "Albert King Award", this years award, a Gibson Flying V guitar.
ED NOTE: Note that Wrestling and Nelly Furtado are also scheduled
The historic New Daisy Theater has seen some incredible blues performances in its time and Sunday nights finals were no exception. The judging panel consisted of record label executives, a blues fan, and Bob Margolin, a well known blues musician and writer. The judges were seated across a long table, each with a small lamp, located directly in the middle of the theater. Honestly, it looked like something right out of Star Search. I found the stage to be fairly large, giving each band plenty of room to perform. The back drop was an image right off Beale Street itself. It reminded me of the scene found behind the band on Saturday Night Live during the monologue portion of the show. The set work, lighting and sound, was top shelf, going off without a hitch. The evenings competition was a complete sell-out, standing room only.
Each of the five finalists gave an incredible performance, highlighting their own unique style and interpretation of the blues. They were all given a specific amount of performance time, which translated into approximately a four or five song set. Each band really cranked up the music and had the whole place rockiní. The crowd was up on their feet, dancing, clapping and cheering loudly for their favorites. All five put on a great show, playing familiar blues numbers, as well as their own material. It was really an exciting competition- I didnít envy the judges when it came time to decide the winners. As with any competition, somebody wins, and somebody goes home empty handed. After all the votes were tallied, the decision went as follows: third place went to The Nicole Nelson Band from Boston, second place went to The Tyree Neal Band out of Baton Rouge, and the 2002 International Blues Challenge winner was Chef Chris and his Nairobi Trio from Detroit. The winner chosen for the "Albert King Award" as most promising guitarist, was Tyree Neal from the Tyree Neal Band. The competition made for an evening filled with great performances, leaving a lasting impression on everyone there. The IBC finals are, in my opinion, the best format upon which to conclude a three day blues convention.
One of the benefits attending this convention is that Iíve learned a great deal more about the music industry as a whole. For example, I've seen how the industry continues to change and restructure through the influences of the economy and the Internet, with both positive and negative results. On the negative side, just the word "Napster" produces strong reactions no matter which side of the issue your on. The steady stream of corporate mergers and buy-outs has taken a heavy toll and hit the industry hard. On the positive side, purchasing music has become more convenient by shopping at home. Many unsigned artists now enjoy greater exposure of their music, they otherwise wouldnít have. Thereís still great concern over recent trends within the industry. Attention and energy is focused strictly on the demographic age group of 15 to 20 year olds. Statistically, the Baby Boomer generation out numbers both Generation X and Generation Y consumers. According to the industry, Baby Boomers just arenít spending enough money to warrant their attention. If the music industry wonít invest or market the music of my generation, how can the largest number of consumers possibly spend their money? Itís time the music industry to stop placing blame on specific groups of consumers for their own mis-management and lack of revenue.
Blues artists are out there recording music, plenty of it. Thereís a whole influx of younger artists on the scene, pumping new blood into the genre. In fact, if you listen carefully, youíll hear blues music playing in the background on several popular television commercials. Unfortunately though, when visiting most local music stores, the blues section is one of the smallest sections in the store. This kind of discrepancy just doesnít make much sense at all. The reality is that blues music consists of a large fan base that is cross-generational. Itís popularity reaches all ages, races and economic households. Blues is the one form of music that truly expresses what it means to be human, from heartache and pain, to passion and joy. It allows us to share where weíve been, where we are, and where we hope to be one day, another avenue upon which to document an individuals life journey. The Blues defines those feelings that originate from a place deep within a persons soul. Blues music overall still has a solid foundation and continues to slowly move forward, especially with the growing popularity of roots music. There were times when blues music was right on the edge of becoming a faded memory. The loss of this genre would be devastating to the history of this country, since it is a part of our heritage, our culture, and considered an American institution. Blues music, from the early days of itís inception, has always been the backbone to many other musical formats. It's a proud parent of its well known children called jazz, pop, country, and rock and roll.
The blues is a genre which needs to be celebrated by the music industry, not ignored. Luckily, there are still those record labels out there, who remain dedicated to the blues and itís preservation. Thankfully we have organizations like The Blues Foundation and the Blues Music Association, whoís leadership and membership work tirelessly to prevent this national treasure from becoming a thing of the past. The annual BluesFirst Convention and Expo, including the International Blues Challenge is just one example of how both these organizations are working together to keep the blues alive and flourishing for many generations to come.
The BluesFirst Convention and Expo, is an important event that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys the music or is involved with the genre. It provides a wealth of information and assistance, even to those just starting out in the business. Itís the one event that educates you on a variety of issues and entertains you with some of the best blues music thatís being performed. You're given a rare opportunity to meet informally with representatives from different areas within the music industry as they share their valuable knowledge and expertise. Itís also a golden opportunity to network with other members, build new memberships, work on issues of importance, and also experience new venues to celebrate the music that brought everyone together. When the three-day event came to a close, I was really glad I chose to attend. I spent time with record label executives, artist managers, different blues society members, and even met a couple of well-known blues artists, one of them being Bobby Rush. The convention opened doors for me that otherwise wouldnít be readily available. Iíve learned a lot more about the business itself and whatís involved for new artists and bands trying to get their foot in the door. Listening to different performances inside many of the blues clubs found up and down Beale St., was an absolute thrill. Just that experience all by itself, has given me some incredible memories I wonít soon forget. The BluesFirst Convention and Expo really shouldnít be missed, itís a great personal investment and well worth the price of admission. It was both a great experience and a positive event that I plan on attending as often as possible.
Robert Johnson sidewalk marker
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