MEMPHIS — The blues can bring you down and lift you up. Two competitors who suffered setbacks earlier in the week rose to the occasion on the grandest of stages Saturday to win the Blues Foundation’s 31st International Blues Challenge.
Eddie Cotton of the Vicksburg Blues Society was the Band category winner and Randy McQuay took the top prize in the Solo/Duo category.
Cotton’s monumental performance came to a bizarre conclusion. The bandleader rushed off the stage along with a singer. The organ player hit a final note and scampered off, too, leaving the drummer alone as the music stopped. The Orpheum Theatre crowd of more than 2,000 cheered, then murmured. Bands are penalized if they play too long.
“I was worried,” Cotton said backstage after he and his band mates had received the trophy. “The first day I lost a point for a bad amp and I lost a point the next night for a late check in.”
More than 200 entrants in the quarterfinals played 25-minute sets Wednesday and Thursday in the storied Beale Street clubs. Friday’s semifinals were 30 minutes, and the 16 finalists were allowed 20 minutes on Saturday.
Cotton’s blues with a feeling helped his performance in the spacious, multi-tiered venue.
“I am used to making eye contact,” he said. “Even though I couldn’t see them, I could feel them.”
Cotton’s quick exit helped bring a second consecutive IBC championship to the Mississippi blues club. Mr. Pipp was the winner in 2014. Grady Champion, who shares a record label with Cotton won the crown in 2010.
Cotton, who had the crowd in unison spell Mississippi during a song at the end of his set, said he is proud to return the crown to the state where blues began. It was the first time the band competed at the IBC.
“It meant the world to me,” he said. “They have always supported me. They expected it and I was just glad to deliver it. I am so glad it’s done. Those were the four hardest performances of my life.”
As he spoke backstage with a reporter, McQuay paused and said “This is all very surreal to me,” before his knees appeared to buckle before he sat back onto a folding table.
The Willmington, N.C. resident says he grew up dirt poor and has “busted every knuckle on his hands moving gear.” He wrote his most popular song in jail.
“Randy is our first IBC winner who was incarcerated in Los Angeles,” outgoing Blues Foundation President Jay Sieleman said when he presented the winning plaque.
“This is the biggest game-changer of my life,” McQuay said. “I can’t believe I didn’t break down during my speech. I did afterward.”
McQuay said his opening performance Wednesday was not good. He was the 13th and final artist to play at King’s Palace. He said he was tired, his tambourine fell out of his foot drum and he had had too many drinks.
But on Saturday, he had the entire theater captivated and entertained, especially with his song “Rehab Blues,” which he said first received enthusiastic support from friends me met at LA County Jail.
“I was known for ballads before that,” he said. “That song showed another side of me. To turn something real bad into a parody is pretty special.”
As Band champion, Eddie Cotton receives $3,000, a spot on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise and 10 festival engagements this year. McQuay gets $2,500, a spot on the cruise and four festival shows.
Noah Wotherspoon of the Dayton Blues Society was second in the Band category, followed by Nico Wayne Toussaint’s Mighty Quartet, representing the Southern California Blues Society. Toussaint, who also won the Lee Oskar award for Harmonica, lives in France. Wotherspoon won for Best Guitarist, formerly the Albert King award.
Brian Keith Wallen of the Dayton Blues Society was second in the Solo/Duo category, and Ben Rice, of the duo Ben Rice and Lucy Hammond for the Ashland Blues Society, won Best Guitarist and an electric cigar box guitar.