RIVER FALLS -- Local business owner and longtime musician Tommy Bentz got a taste of “Memphis Blues” as he traveled to Beale Street for the International Blues Challenge Jan. 28-Feb. 1.

The Tommy Bentz band represented Wisconsin in the annual event that brought together hundreds of musicians -- a first for western Wisconsin. In the past it's been mainly bands from the east side of the state, but the band made the trip to that side of the state to compete with the Paramount Music Association.

“It was also a way for us to sort of meet some new people over there,” Bentz said.

The entries are narrowed down to eight, and then each band performs a 25-30 minute set. The criteria is similar to that of the International Blues Challenge, including blues content, originality, stage presence and musicianship.

The bands and solo artists play in clubs up and down blues street, some in smaller locations and some in larger venues.

After two days of quarter finals, the more than 200 participants are narrowed down to the semifinals, before winners are announced in the band and solo/duo categories.

“It’s good to do things like that every now and then as an artist to gauge your place in the world,” Bentz said.

He enjoyed being among the other musicians and soaking up all the great music. “The scene of the music in general, I think that was probably the most exciting part,” Bentz said.

Bentz hopes to have the opportunity to go again.

“Anytime you go to one of these things you learn a little bit about how things are done,” he said.

Blues is just one aspect of the Tommy Bentz Band. A trio of guitar, bass and drums, the musicians play bluesy rock.

“I always describe us as sort of Van Morrison meets the Allman Brothers in terms of our sound,” Bentz said.

They have a new album coming out this month, the sixth from Bentz. They’ve toured internationally, playing in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain.

The band has been in existence for about 15 years, and current members Bentz, Jason McLean and Alex Burgess have been together for the last 10.

“I enjoy writing songs and performing those songs and hopefully people like them, too,” Bentz said.

Bentz’s involvement in music goes back to his childhood, when he started playing violin at age 4. From there he picked up the oboe and the saxophone before starting to play guitar right before his senior year.

“I started enjoying playing in bands and enjoyed writing and singing my own songs,” Bentz said.

During that time, he also opened Brickhouse Music on Main Street. He appreciates the chance to create relationships with his customers.

“Getting somebody what they want and what they need as opposed to just what’s on the shelf has always been the most important,” Bentz said.

Playing music gives him a similar opportunity to connect with people.

“Meeting new people all the time and making friends and fans all over the country and all over the world is an amazing feeling,” he said.