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Keeping the Blues Alive
February 3, 2010 - Phyllis Sigal
Wheeling's Heritage Music BluesFest was honored late last month by The Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tenn., with the "Keeping the Blues Alive" award, presented during a ceremony prior to the International Blues Challenge finals.
What an honor for my husband, Bruce Wheeler — who practically does it all, singlehandedly — and for Wheeling as well.
When Jay Sieleman, executive director of The Blues Foundation, presented the award, he first spoke about the wonderful lineup of acts that Bruce puts together each year. But, he also pointed out that when you get to the festival, and see the stage set against the backdrop of the Ohio River, you know that you made the right decision by coming to this festival — even if you had no idea where Wheeling, W.Va., was before you came.
However, I wouldn't mind going to the festival that won the KBA in the "international festival" category — Piazza Blues in Bellinzona, Switzerland, situated in a piazza guarded by three ancient hilltop castles and surrounded by outdoor cafes and medieval churches. Sounds lovely!
But what a weekend for music in Memphis! Anyone who is a blues music lover, should try to check it out. For four days each January, you can hear the most amazing blues music. And at so many venues. The competition culminates on Saturday at the solo/duo finals in the afternoon and the band finals in the evening, all in the beautiful, historic Orpheum Theater.
According to Sieleman, the weekend is "the largest gathering of blues bands in the world."
These are the numbers — 224 acts: 110 bands, 82 solo-duo acts and 32 youth acts. "That is a total of 730 musicians! They hail from 30 U.S. states, 12 countries and five continents. There will be 453 performances in 21 venues. All of this on world-famous Beale Street over the course of four days and nights," Sieleman said.
From around 5 p.m. until at least 11 p.m. or even later at some venues, the International Blues Competition takes place at 21 clubs and bars. With your event pass, you can walk in and out of venue after venue after venue ... and you can even take your beer with you along Beale Street, which is just for pedestrians.
You really need to bring a highlighter to figure out your itinerary.
It's a big deal to be the IBC band winner and solo/duo act winner. For one, you are offered a spot on the main stage at the Heritage Music BluesFest! (This year's solo-duo winner was Matt Andersen of New Brunswick, Canada, and the winner in the band competition was Grady Champion of Indianola, Miss.)
But the winners also receive a lot of notoriety. One winner a few years back commented that winning the IBCs was better for his career than a $100,000 publicity budget.
Besides the competition, there also are round-table discussions, meetings, panels, speakers, showcases and concerts.
A notable showcase this year was the youth showcase; it got many tongues a waggin' about the up-and-coming young musicians. More than 30 young acts — just kids!! — really wowed the crowds, and are proof that the blues is going to be around for a long, long time.
So, until you get a chance to visit Memphis during this most amazing weekend, check out the 2010 KBA festival winner, Wheeling's Heritage Music BluesFest, set this year for Aug. 13-15, and come celebrate year No. 10.
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Bruce A. Wheeler ... "Keeping the Blues Alive" recipient in the "festivals" category.