"Keeping the Blues Alive Award" Achievement for Blues on the Internet Presented by The Blues Foundation
If you have ever traveled across the state of Tennessee beginning in the east and heading west, you will know that the collision of blues, gospel & country that gave birth to rock and roll could only have happened in a community where all these cultures intertwined. That community is Memphis and its role in nurturing the blues cannot be denied. It was where Delta country blues first became urbanized. Ever since W.C. Handy published the first blues song in 1912, fans have flocked to the city and its famed Beale Street.
Since the only culture I get in my small, Canadian city is the kind they add to yogurt, we got to town early to see Larry Garner at Elvis Presley's Memphis on May 21. With expressive vocals and witty lyrics, the guitar wrangler did not disappoint the small crowd. However, since Garner's wife was in the crowd, his infamous storytelling put him in the doghouse. His fans may have enjoyed hearing how she barked all the way to the bedroom after doing tequila shots with Larry one evening but Mrs. Garner was not impressed. It was a great gig that provided an opportunity for the blues community (writers, photographers, producers, agents and record labels) to meet and mingle in a relaxed environment before the pandemonium of awards day.
For the artists, the few days that comprise the events in and around the Handy Awards is like old home week. It is a most humbling experience for those who win an award since the voting not only takes place via peers but by the true fans. The official festivities kicked off at the VIPre-Party on May 22. Held at the Gibson Lounge, it was a big hob-knob occasion complete with a red carpet, plenty of hors-d'oeuvres and blues music industry folks dressed to the 9s. Where else could you find Marcia Ball, Deborah Coleman and Ruth Brown dressed to kill? The most shocking and surprising dressed musician was Magic Slim in a tux. Entertainment was provided by Toni Lynn Washington who performed a smooth and distinguished set of tunes from her new CD, "Been So Long." This soft-spoken and highly classy lady of the blues was thrilled to be performing in front of her idols. Backstage, she told me, "I saw one of my influences, Miss Ruth Brown, waving her hands (to my music) and I was absolutely blown away. To see so many of my favourite artists out in the audience, and now I'm entertaining them! Can you beat that?!".
Backstage at the historic Orpheum Theatre, Pat Mitchell, the Blues Foundation's Director of Communications/Education, said, "on this year's show we have an equal mix between young artists and older artists. We have legends and emerging artists. Something on this show will blow you away". This year's hosts were comprised of a tag-team of notable and celebrated blues performers. Delbert McClinton kicked the evening off with a couple of his roadhouse boogie tunes. Sporting spectacles and looking rather aged, his voice was in fine form. The night's big winner was Shemekia Copeland who collected three awards for her Dr. John-produced album, "Talking to Strangers." Sacred steel guitarist Robert Randolph captured his first Handy while Koko Taylor won her 23rd. Previous show host, Ruth Brown, had the crowd in stitches with her hilarious bantering about B.B. King as she accepted his fifth consecutive award for Entertainer of the Year. Oddly enough very few winners were present to accept their awards and the theatre was far from being sold-out. Not what I expected for this Year Of The Blues edition of the Handys. The other co-hosts were Marcia Ball, Bobby Rush and the presenters included: Deborah Coleman, Rich Robinson, Larry Garner, Otis Taylor, Larry Fulcher, Jody Williams, Tony Braunagel, Toni Lynn Washington, Little Milton, Ann Rabson, Carla Thomas, Nick Moss and Chris Thomas King.
In between award presentations, there was plenty of music. Dressed as the Britney of the blues (with plenty of her midriff exposed), Ana Popovic performed a burning, "Love Fever". She playfully told the audience it was her dream come true to play in Memphis at the Handys and then launched into "Hometown". Here, she played hefty slide to match her wickedly, sexy hair and heavily fueled modern blues. She melted the stage and challenged the cameramen to follow her to its edge. The young blues starlet pushed the music beyond its limits. Later, she enthusiastically told me, "Love Fever is a song I recorded just because I was here (Memphis) and its basically Memphis' influence on me. That's why I decided to do it (tonight). I got (the song) from a Memphis songwriter and we did it in a Memphis groove". The genre was represented in a more traditional fashion when Corey Harris, Sam Carr and Bobby Rush combined to perform an electric, Delta blues tribute to Otha Turner. It was great to see the young and veteran artists join forces to keep this great music alive. However, during the intermission Carr said, "I give the blues 10 more years . it will be dead before I am". The blues youth continued to rule musically during the remainder of the show's first half. Robert Randolph played steel lap guitar with a strong taste of Hendrix and plenty of gospel overtones. Imagine the Holmes Brothers super charged on acid and you'll get the picture. Randolph screamed and stomped his feet as he energetically danced and jumped around the stage. The crowd reacted with a thunderous roar to complement Robert's thundering beat. It was swaggering music from the hills in its rawest form. It was even more extreme than the kind of music that has made the North Mississippi Allstars a household name.
IBC winners, Delta Moon, kicked off the second act with their lively, country rock blues. Then Richard Johnston brought the house down with his foot-stomping, primitive hillbilly rock. This one man act created a joyous celebration while playing electric guitar, snare and bass drums. It resulted in the crowd getting on their feet again. Dressed in coveralls, this local favourite looked like a good ole boy and had the power of the North Mississippi Allstars tucked into his single man act. For his second number, Johnston was joined by Sharde Thomas, R.L. Boyce and Bill Turner. Together they blended the fife and drum sound of Otha with Junior Kimbrough's cotton patch sound. If Johnston and Randolph do not hold the future of blues in their hands then I don't know what will save the genre! On "Get Your Business Straight", Magic Slim played striking notes that cut sharp enough to knock you from your chair. Then all three co-hosts introduced the final act - the bishop Solomon Burke. He sat in a robe-draped royal throne and grasped onto a rose while his 13 piece backing band performed like sovereign servants. The mighty group included a string harp, multiple brass instruments and two backing singers. Burke still has his powerful voice which is clear and concise. During the show's highlight he made every note a righteous and joyous one while refusing to stick to his short time allotment. He performed a medley of soul hits while numerous ladies from the audience came up on stage and presented him with a rose.
The complete list of award winners follows:
Blues Album of the Year - Shemekia Copeland, "Talking to Strangers"
Blues Entertainer of the Year - B.B. King
Best New Artist Debut - Robert Randolph, "Live at the Wetlands"
Contemporary Female Artist of Year - Shemekia Copeland
Contemporary Blues Album of the Year - Shemekia Copeland, "Talking to Strangers"
Soul Male Artist of the Year - Solomon Burke
Soul Blues Album of the Year - Solomon Burke, "Don't Give Up on Me"
Soul Female Artist of the Year - Etta James
Contemporary Male Artist of the Year - Charlie Musselwhite
Traditional Male Artist of the Year - R.L. Burnside
Traditional Female Artist of the Year - Koko Taylor
Traditional Blues Album of the Year - James Cotton, "35th Anniversary Jam"
Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year - John Hammond
Acoustic Blues Album - Big Jack Johnson, "Memphis Bar-B-Que Sessions"
Blues Instrumentalist/Guitar - Duke Robillard
Blues Instrumentalist/Keyboards - Pinetop Perkins
Blues Instrumentalist/Harmonica - Charlie Musselwhite
Blues Instrumentalist/Bass - Willie Kent
Blues Instrumentalist/Drums - Willie "Big Eyes" Smith
Blues Instrumentalist/Other - Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (Fiddle)
Blues Instrumentalist/Horn - Roomful of Blues Horns
Comeback Blues Album of the Year - Jody Williams, "Return of a Legend"
Historical Blues Album of the Year - Albert King, "Born Under a Bad Sign"
Blues Song of the Year - "Let It Rain," W.C. Clark, Bobby Boyd and John Gray Gregson
(from W.C. Clark's "From Austin With Soul")
Blues Band of the Year - Magic Slim and The Teardrops
No awards show runs without a few faults. This year, the field most susceptible to error was production. Throughout the evening, the show was plagued with mis-timed curtain lowerings; presenters and winners who appeared on stage after a lengthy delay; mis-queued nominee lists; less than desirable sound quality and the entire show ran behind schedule. However, one thing is for sure - the Blues Foundation is to be commended for putting these awards on. The annual event is organized and produced by them. They are a non-profit organization dedicated to the preserving blues history, celebrating blues excellence and supporting blues education. It is the umbrella organization for a worldwide network of 112 affiliated Blues Societies and has individual memberships in 27 countries. The Handy Awards are the blues equivalent to the Grammy Awards. A panel of international blues industry experts determine the initial nominees and thirty thousand blues fans select the winners.
The party does not stop at the conclusion of the awards ceremony. Far from it as numerous blues-related events continue through the weekend. Beginning with the traditional post jam which lasted into the wee wee hours. This year's jam highlights were definitely Chris Thomas King performing with Larry Garner along with an impeccable set from frenetic guitarist Albert Castiglia. On May 23rd, Beale Street was bustling with the greatest collection of past, present and future blues greats. In just a few short hours we experienced the incredible sounds of Ana Popovic, Eddie Martin, Richard Johnston, Magic Slim, Larry Garner, Toni Lynn Washington, Delta Moon, Bob Margolin w/Willie Smith and Bryan Lee.
On May 24th, the Handy Blues Film Festival ran and it featured Blues Heaven, Sweet Old Song, Robert Gordon's Muddy Waters: Can't Be Satisfied, Robert Mugge's Last Of The Mississippi Jukes and the main attraction a 100-minute preview of the upcoming PBS documentary series The Blues. A much shorter preview of this much-hyped Martin Scorsese production was screened at the awards. The grand finale was the Handy Artists Relief Trust Benefit Concert with the Houserockers (house band of Jackson, MS's Subway Lounge) and Chris Thomas King.
Look for the awards show to be broadcast on your local PBS affiliate this Fall and confirm your real blues fan denomination by attending next year's Handy Awards.
For further information about the W.C. Handy Awards, contact www.handyawards.com For further info about the Blues Foundation, contact www.blues.org and for more detail about Year Of The Blues, check out www.yearoftheblues.org
Tim Holek, Freelance Journalist/Photographer: www.mnsi.net/~thblues
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