Where to start ? After touring frozen Saskatchewan, playing one of my favorite gigs on New Year's Day (the annual "Hankover" show at the Ironwood Stage & Grill here in Calgary) and assorted other gigs, I got on a plane for Houston to make connections with a flight to Memphis where I would compete in the 30th annual International Blues Challenge. This is not your usual battle-of-the-bands horseshit where a bunch of people play for free and club owners line their pockets with beer sales...this is the premier gathering of blues talent on the planet, sponsored by The Blues Foundation. I was in the solo/duo category, along with 101 other competitors from Canada, the US, Spain, Croatia, Germany, Denmark, Australia and the UK. Each of these acts had to win a qualifying round put on by their local blues society just to be in Memphis.
I got to Houston without a hitch, but while having a beer in the bar adjacent to my boarding lounge the bartender mentioned that a bad snowstorm was rolling west. I looked at the monitor and could see flights beginning to be delayed, so I paid up and got a seat in my boarding lounge. Soon a counter person asked to see my boarding pass, and offered me $150 plus hotel, ground transportation and meal vouchers to take a flight the next morning. I politely declined and watched more flights being delayed and cancelled at airports further and further west. The counter person returned and doubled the offer, but I explained to her that I had to be in Memphis, on Beale Street, by 11:30 and I wasn't going on a different flight from my guitars (which had been checked through).
We came in from the south, following the river (Mark Twain's river, William Faulkner's river, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbeck's river) at twilight. Pure magic. I got to my hotel and noticed a text from pal Mike Clark, whose band were the other Calgary competitors. Meet at B.B.King's...which was right around the corner from me, five or six stops down the Main Street streetcar line for Mike. A few Maker's Mark and Flat Tire beer combos later, after listening to the brilliant Tuesday night house band, I went back to the room for some quiet time and a sleep. I wanted to have my wits about me for the orientation at the New Daisy Theatre next day at 11:30.
Breakfast in my hotel, the Westin On Beale (more correctly it should be called The Westin Almost On Beale, but what's half a block ?). Sort of up-scale, definitely could have been anywhere cuisine, but the coffee was good, the waitresses were friendly and it lay directly between me and my destination. The New Daisy Theatre (right across Beale from The Daisy Theatre) is a run-down, waiting for a loving restoration kind of a place, and once the doors opened there were line-ups (bands one side, solo/duo acts on the other) all the way from the bar (where passes were being handed out) to the stage and across the front of it. It took awhile to get through the line-up, to be told we had to come back later for the orientation. I went down the street to Ugly Juanita's, where eventually I got a schedule, and paid $3 for a lanyard to hang my pass from (I grumbled for a second, but then I remembered all the good work the Blues Foundation does for the music I love). Back to the New Daisy where we are told we are all winners, and told not to mess up and to be at our venues on time or lose points.
I changed strings and went for dinner at Pig on Beale, a fine Barbeque place where both large front windows are full of BBQ trophies and they serve one of my favorite southern comfort foods, a barbequed bologna sandwich (with slaw and beans). It was time to wash offr the barbecue sauce and head to my venue, upstairs in Jerry Lee Lewis's club, in The 12 Bar. A nice little room, no stage but wood walls and floor good for that one warm sound bounce, and a soundman who seemed to know what he was about. On at 7, playing to a pretty full room with three judges sitting directly in front of me along with a time keeper (you lose points if you exceed your 25 minutes). I start playing and notice the judges and time keeper looking at me with big smiles and think "Damn, these are friendly folks." After the set I run into Alberta blues pals Cam Hayden (Edmonton Blues Fest/CKUA) and Holger Pederson (CBC/CKUA/Stony Plain Records) and head off with Holger and some folks from other blues societies, back to B.B.King's to catch thre Papa John Band, who are magnificent. I finish my evening with a feed of catfish at Blues City Cafe and head to bed.
Thursday is busier. A showcase at a knotty-pine paneled bar hung with moose heads, called the Kooky Kanuck. Noon, the place is full of people drinking beer and trying to either do business or listen to the blues. I opt for the latter, playing "Shake 'Em On Down" with the Mike Clark Band, then hustle back to Beale. I had taken a cab to the bar because it was cold and I didn't know where I was going, and the cabby wasn't taking any money...this is a city that loves it's musicians. 1:15 and I'm upstairs at the Rumboogie Club, doing an interview with Vinnie Marini for his internet radio broadcast, "Music From The Couch." A quick bite at Polly's Soul City Cafe and then try to fix my malfunctioning pre-amp...no luck, I'll have to play the set through a Blues Jr. amp again tonight. Judges dig it, two of them come up to tell me how much they dig it. I listen to some of the other acts, then head to the lounge at The Orpheum Theatre to catch my friend Brandon Issak, then we head for a beer (and discover we've both made the semi-finals). And more catfish.
Friday I discover my venue is right beside my hotel...a strange combo of Irish pub and southern food. I had been in earlier to catch Barbara Blue, a Beale Street fixture. The place is loud, but the soundman is cool and competent...things go down pretty good, and I head to the back room for a pulled pork dinner. Heading out to find a venue that's announcing the finalists, I run into Eddie "Devil Boy" Turner, and we have a good little hang while waiting to find out they're announcing finalists at the New Daisy. It's freezing cold in Memphis (colder than Calgary) and freezing inside the New Daisy. I get a beer and sit up at the back until, in amazement I hear my name announced as a finalist.
Next day starts out tense. The e-mail detailing finalist orientation at the Orpheum doesn't get to my cell phone (it's on my computer when I get home, however). I hustle to the theatre and apologize profusely, find out when I play, and then hang back stage for an eternity. A good visit with Lionel Young makes the time pass somewhat more pleasantly. I walk out to play my 20-minute set in the beautiful old Orpheum Theatre...I can't even let myself think about all the greats who've stood on that stage. Three acts later, it's over and I hear my name being called...I've won Best Solo/Duo and Best Guitarist (Solo/Duo). Holy Shit...more later (sooner than later).