This years W. C. HANDY AWARDS - the 25th Anniversary Show - was not only going to be special, but it was also going to be different.....very different. The date was changed, the location was changed and the format was changed. All of these changes, of course, were decided with the betterment of the ceremony in mind.
The first change, the date of the event, was moving the show from the last weekend in May to the first weekend in May, in order to coincide with Memphis in Mays' "BEALE STREET MUSIC FESTIVAL". The idea behind this was excellent - it was supposed to cut down the number of no shows at the W. C. HANDY AWARDS. The lack of nominees, as well as winners, at the past several award ceremonies had become a big concern for the Blues Foundation and the awards audience. Apparently, there were just not enough paying gigs in the area, and nominated bands could not afford to come into town for the sole sake of attending the HANDY'S. This year, the "BEALE STREET MUSIC FESTIVAL" would change all of that because there were now going to be many paying gigs available, at the festival, for the nominated bands. Throw in a few Beale Street clubs offering some gigs, and this no show problem would surely be solved. Not quite! Of the 25 official categories that a HANDY AWARD is given out for, 16 (61%) of those categories winners were not present, and I won't even tell you how many other nominees were not there. Those 16 categories accounted for 11 different winners and included the likes of B. B. KING (Blues Entertainer of the Year), MARCIA BALL (Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year), ETTA JAMES (Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year and Soul/Blues Album of the Year), SOLOMON BURKE (Soul/Blues Male Artist of the Year), KOKO TAYLOR (Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year), JOHN HAMMOND (Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year), DR. JOHN (Blues Instrumentalist - Keyboards), GATEMOUTH BROWN (Blues Instrumentalist - Other), BUDDY GUY (Contemporary Blues male Artist of the Year, Blues Album of the Year and Acoustic Blues Album of the Year), and ROOMFUL OF BLUES (Blues Band of the year and Blues Instrumentalist - Horns). Of course, no one was expecting the winner for HISTORICAL BLUES ALBUM OF THE YEAR - MR. MUDDY WATERS' to attend, but he was there in spirit and that's more than can be said for some other winners. As for the "BEALE STREET MUSIC FESTIVAL" solving the gig shortage situation, less than a dozen (way less) W. C. HANDY AWARD nominated acts performed there over the whole three days and only 1 performed in a Beale Street club.
In spite of the above, the W. C. HANDY BLUES AWARDS 25TH ANNIVERSARY SHOW was absolutely spectacular. I tip my hat to the Blues Foundation Staff, the Handy Awards Production Staff, the Musical Performers, the Staff of the Cannon Center Ballroom and to all others involved for doing an excellent job. The location change and the format change were perfect and made this, my fifth consecutive W. C. HANDY AWARD the best yet.
Removing us from the old squished in, tight seated Orphium Theater and placing us in a very modern and spacious Cannon Center Ballroom added a well needed social touch to the ceremonies. The 1,200 people in attendance, seated at 120 tables of 10, were able to walk about freely and mix and mingle with friends and fans alike. The fact that nominees were placed at as many tables as possible made the mingling even that more exciting. Other than the time it took to eat a very nice, included dinner, I don't think I was in my chair more than 15 minutes. For me it was like being at a big Italian wedding where, instead of doing the 'Tarantella' and the 'Hokey Pokey', they played lots of good blues music.
Speaking of good blues music, now would be a good time to mention the evenings entertainment. Starting at 5:30 PM, with the evenings opening entertainment at the VIP Pre Party - the 2004 IBC winners ZACK HARMON & THE MID SOUTH BLUES REVIEW - and going until nearly 2:30 AM - when NICK MOSS AND THE FLIP TOPS closed the show - the evening was filled with the blues by some of the best entertainers ever assembled under one roof. It just isn't possible for me to review every act that performed, so I will just mention a few that stood out in my mind.
ZACK HARMON & THE MID SOUTH BLUES REVIEW, clearly showed why they were the winners of this years INTERNATIONAL BLUES CHALLENGE. Performing in a tough setting - the foyer of the ballroom - during a cocktail hour atmosphere, where people were eating, drinking, walking and talking, ZACK and the band were still able to gather a very large and attentive audience. With JEFF STONE, who ZACK admits is to him what JUNIOR was to BUDDY, on harmonica and a real tight band behind him, ZACK HARMON may very well be back at the HANDY'S again next year - as a nominee.
Of course, KIM WILSON (nominated in 6 categories and winner for Blues Song of the Year with "LOOKIN' FOR TROUBLE"), tore the place up. When he was done with what is becoming his trademark, a 10 minute harmonica solo, you could have wrung out his socks. This was unquestionably one of the evenings highlights.
EG KIGHT and her band, one of my personal favorites of the evening, validated her three HANDY AWARD nominations with an outstanding performance. By the time she left the stage it was apparent that she was one of the favorites of many in the audience, drawing one of the better ovations of the evening.
It had to be a real long nerve wracking night for Mr. NICK MOSS. Aside from the tension of being a nominee, and awaiting a call at anytime to hear that his wife KATE had given birth to their first child, he and the FLIPTOPS had to close the show. No Problem! These guys got up there and served up some of the best traditional Chicago Blues of the night. By the way, as of the following evening NICK MOSS was still not a dad. I am sure that by now he is and I'd like to send out a big congratulations to the MOSS family.
Other HANDY AWARD winners putting on winning performances for the evening consisted of PINETOP PERKINS (Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year), CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE (Blues Instrumentalist - Harmonica), WILLIE KENT (Blues Instrumentalist - Bass), and BETTYE LA VETTE (Comeback Blues Album of the Year) who's acceptance speech was the emotional highlight of the evening. The other HANDY AWARD winners present, but not performing were DUKE ROBILLARD (Best Instrumentalist - Guitar), WILLIE "BIG EYES" SMITH (Best instrumentalist - Drummer) and ANSON FUNDERBURGH (Traditional Blues Album of the Year)
Many other wonderful performances were put on by many other wonderful performers - new and old.......RENEE AUSTIN, ERIC BIBB, RORY BLOCK, MICHAEL BURKES, HENRY BUTLER, DEBORAH COLEMAN, ANDRA FAYE, FRUTELAND JACKSON, MARIA MULDAUAR, SONNY RHODES, BOBBY RUSH, EDDY SHAW, E C SCOTT and a host of others that I know I did not mention......thank you all.
Last, and certainly not least, there is one performance by a winner that has yet to be mentioned - Best New Blues Artist Debut winner - NICK CURRAN & THE NITELITES. Although the side show put on by two of their lovely, scantily clad assistants created some controversy, NICK CURRAN & THE NITELITES clearly showed why they were a virtual lock in this category. One of my very dear friends, miss E G Kight was up against these guys and when I saw their show just a week before the Handy's I mentioned to E G that this was going to be a tough act to beat. Indeed it was.
All in all, I find myself already looking forward to the 2005 W C HANDY AWARDS. If there were only a way to work in the old "wrist bands at the clubs on Beale Street thing", then I would be one happy blues fan. The "BEALE STREET MUSIC FEST" was OK, but I don't like the weather having an effect, and it did have a miserable affect at that, and I am not really crazy about seeing SALIVA, TRAPT, FOO FIGHTERS, DRIVE BY TRUCKERS, TONE LOC, THREE 6 MAFIA, STYX, JOURNEY, et al. on a blues safari.
It's funny, I did a survey over the weekend in Memphis and the results were 100%. As I strolled Beale Street, mingled at the HANDY AWARDS, ate in restaurants and shopped in stores, I asked everyone I talked with what they were in town for, the HANDY AWARDS or The "BEALE STREET MUSIC FESTIVAL"? 100% of those in town for the HANDY AWARDS (or both) had know of the "BEALE STREET MUSIC FESTIVAL", and 100% of those in town for the "BEALE STREET MUSIC FESTIVAL" didn't know what the W C HANDY AWARDS were. I guess that's why they call it the Blues.