International Blues Challenge showcases the genre's youngest performers

By Published: January 19, 2019 4:00 AM CT

Starting Tuesday, Jan. 22, and culminating with the finals on Saturday, Jan. 26, the 35th annual International Blues Challenge will bring more than 800 musicians from all over the world to Memphis.

People envisioning a blues musician might have a certain image of what that person looks like, one that more likely than not, probably skews older.

But younger musicians – children and teens even – are engaging in the genre. And at IBC the youngest blues performers come together.

Stax and Croatia

During the week, Stax Music Academy is hosting a workshop with the Croatian Youth Blues Band on Tuesday.

At the workshop, the two groups will introduce themselves to each other, discussing their countries, cultures and music.

After the introduction, the youth will have a jam session including Bobby Blue Bland, Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor and Albert King songs.

Tim Sampson, communications director for the Soulsville Foundation, said the academy does workshops with different groups on a regular basis.

“It's a natural fit for us especially because some of our kids have never traveled outside of Memphis and they absolutely love meeting people from other countries,” he said.

Blues Foundation Youth Outreach

The Blues Foundation’s Generation Blues program provides financial assistance to blues musicians under 21 to attend summer blues camp and workshops.

About 40 young people received funding last year, according to president and CEO Barbara Newman. 

During the IBC itself is the Youth Showcase. Many of the performers each year also participate in Generation Blues, but it is not a requirement.

Blues Foundation affiliated societies around the world can opt to send a youth band to the IBC. Those musicians perform in a Beale Street club on Friday night of the IBC, ahead of the semifinals. Educators sit in each club to evaluate the youth bands and give them feedback.

But the Youth Showcase performances are not part of the competition. No awards are given, but the participants have the opportunity to perform in front of a large and supportive crowd.

The IBC also hosts special workshops just for Youth Showcase participants on the Friday morning of IBC, where they can meet other youth bands. The bands come from as far away as Australia.

“We give all Youth Showcase participants a free pass for the entire IBC week, so they can network, listen to the challengers, attend showcases and jams and often find other opportunities to perform,” Newman said. “We see all of these experiences as paramount to their continued education, not just in performance, but also in building fans and learning the business of music.”

No Solution

During the IBC, the Atlanta Blues Society will receive a Keeping the Blues Alive Award this year.

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No Solution will represent Atlanta in the Youth Showcase. This will be the band’s third time at IBC; it also performed in 2016 and 2018.

Four high school seniors comprise No Solution: Max Bittner (guitar), Devon Gates (bass and vocals), Chris Robinson (drums and vocals) and Micah MacLane (keyboards and vocals). The band has been together since the members were in seventh grade.

David Bittner, the band’s manager and father of Max, said the only thing they knew that first year playing the Youth Showcase was that they had a 30-minute set.

“Truly shocking and great was the amount of youth jams that year,” he said. “They were running up and down Beale Street in and out of clubs carrying instruments.”

David Bittner said the young musicians end up following each other on Instagram and Snapchat after meeting.

“That’s the fun,” he said. “These kids meeting other kids their age from over the U.S. and world.”

The Instinct

One of the youth bands that members of No Solution met last year was The Instinct, representing the Canada South Blues Society.

The members of No Instinct range from in age from 15 to 18. They are Adem Dalipi (vocals, guitar), Donovan Lawnicki (vocals, bass), Stacy Norris (drums), Grady Caplin (guitar) and Aval Stanley (keys, harmonica).

The band formed in 2016 when its members met at the Fernando Jones Blues Camp in Chicago.  (Grady is from Canada and Southern Canada is the band's home away from Chicago.)

“Being in front of a lot of people who love the blues – it’s really awesome to show people our love and passion for the blues and showcase what we’ve got,” Adem said.

Sometimes the older, veteran musicians are skeptical at first, but the band is able to prove its abilities once its members begin performing, he said.  

“We receive a lot of support from older musicians,” Grady said.

Those musicians end up taking the band under their wing, he added.

“I want to have the younger generation keep the blues alive,” Stacy said. “I want young people to love blues. Blues is like music history.”

Us and Them Blues Band

Last year, the Blues Society of Omaha received the Keeping the Blues Alive Award.

Representing the society in the Youth Showcase this year is Us and Them Blues Band, which is performing at IBC for the second time. The band first performed in 2017.

Members of Us and Them are ages 12 to 18. They are Grace Giebler, (vocals) Harrison Tarr (vocals), Luke Wagner (drums), Logan Hawkins (guitar), J.J. Stiles (guitar), Aedan Leahy (keys), Josie Jennum (bass), Tyler Savoie (sax), Macy Klein (sax) and Quin Sexton (trumpet).

The band is a part of the Blue Society of Omaha’s BluesEd Program. It includes members in middle and high school. Students audition and based on the audition are placed in different bands. The students remain members of the bands until they graduate high school. As they graduate, incoming students fill in the missing spots.

Each band has their own unique sound and style of blues, said Ann Giebler, lead parent of Us and Them Blues Band and Grace Giebler's mother.

Every week, bands get together at someone’s house. Lead parents are responsible for ensuring the bands have a place to practice.

As part of the program, professional musicians from the area mentor the youth once or twice per month and give them pointers. And the bands perform around town. 

 “We often see students going to Berklee (College of Music) and other colleges to study music,” Ann Giebler said. "The whole program is designed to foster the love of blues in musicians that carry it through college and they form other bands and keep playing. It’s keeping the blues alive.”


The Blues Foundation Barbara Newman "International Blues Challenge Stax Music Academy Tim Sampson
Elle Perry

Elle Perry

Elle Perry covers arts and culture and other news for the Daily Memphian. She is a native of Memphis and a two-time graduate of the University of Memphis. Elle previously worked for the Memphis Business Journal and has written for publications including The Memphis Flyer and High Ground News.

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