On October 7, 8 and 9, 2004, the world-renowned nineteenth annual King
Biscuit Blues Festival hosted one of the best representation of blues
likely to be seen at any one venue. The festival concentrates on performances
by blues musicians who were born in the Delta area along with headliners
who symbolize the deep blues of the region. This free festival is held in
downtown Helena, Arkansas and is the major event of the year for this economically
depressed small town on the banks of the Mississippi River. The Sonny Boy
Williamson Main Stage backed Cherry Street where vendors had booths spread
out over four blocks. Three other stages also presented major acts on Friday
and Saturday. The primary sponsor of the festival is the Isle of Capri Casino
and Entertainment Resort located across the bridge in Lula, Mississippi
which is where most attendees and performers stay.
On opening day, Thursday, the sun was bright and the temperature was in the high 80s and the weather forecast was for rain in the very near future. After catching the shuttle bus from the hotel and while walking a few blocks to the festival site, we were struck by the boarded-up storefronts along Cherry Street where residents had also set up stands selling souvenirs and smoking barbecue. During the course of the weekend walking along the street, I met many friends from California and blues fans from other parts of the world who regularly make the pilgrimage to the Delta for this event.
One of the first stops was the Delta Cultural Center filled with blues artifacts including photographs, musical instruments, books and posters. This is now home to the legendary radio station KFFA-AM where "Sunshine" Sonny Payne (photo at left) still broadcasts the King Biscuit Time show five days a week where he has hosted the show since 1951. Payne was holding forth on the air throughout the festival interviewing festival performers and other dignitaries and affording the musicians the opportunity to present short demonstrations. There were many workshops and associated events held in conjunction with the festival at various venues.
Friends of the Biscuit support the festival by purchasing a special package for $50 which allows front of the stage seating and special promotional items. The free seating is on a grass area which is slightly terraced uphill affording a great view of the main stage.
"Sunshine" Sonny Payne and Bubba Sullivan (who owns a fantastic record store on Cherry Street named Bubba's Blues Corner) shared the M.C. spotlight. Throughout the festivities, their knowledgeable introductions were distinguished and convivial.
The official opening act was a group named Diddley Squat who won the spot in the 2004 annual Sonny Boy Blues Society Blues Challenge. These guys made a major impression on the audience with their original tunes and showman performance.
One of the outstanding performances on Thursday was that of Daniel "Slick" Ballinger (photo at right) who, at the tender age of 19, is making waves in the blues world. After high school, Ballinger moved from North Carolina to Mississippi and soaked up the Delta blues while living with the great blues legend Othar Turner. On this day, Ballinger was accompanied by a band which included the late Junior Kimbrough's son Kenny on drums and a talented harmonica player, Terry "Harmonica" Bean (who has two good solo CDs). Ballinger's raw performance of blues and gospel was dripping with Delta soul when he did "Brotherhood Blues." His stage antics were excitingly refreshing and his enthusiasm for the music was infectious.
Corey Harris and the 5 x 5 Band did a set primarily consisting of blues although Harris is known for his recent cultural exploration of African music which was prominently featured in the Martin Scorsese PBS series, "The Blues." Harris proved on this occasion that his roots are also firmly planted in the Mississippi blues tradition when doing standards like "Dust My Broom."
Closing out the Thursday show, Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers heated up the audience with their rock blues style and Thackery's guitar pyrotechnics.
Friday morning started off cloudy and windy but the opening act of Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's band, Capital Offense, warmed us up with their rollicking eclectic set with tunes ranging from blues to country western. The band consisted of mostly state workers who love the blues and were talented performers as well. Terry Benson was an outstanding vocalist who performed a tune dedicated to Johnny Cash. The band's rendition of "Pride and Joy" was delightful with the guitar player playing with his teeth on this high-energy tune. Governor Huckabee played bass quite admirably for a politician (photo at left)!
and resident, John Weston (photo at right), performed on guitar and
harmonica on a rack with Spoonman playing spoons and his daughter Carla
playing electric bass and a bass drum with her foot. His soulful blues style
reflected a humor and life experience which was related in his original
Sam Carr is the quintessential drummer and one of the most acclaimed Delta musicians of his generation. As the son of the legendary Robert Nighthawk, Carr started his career dancing along with his father's band at an early age. Dave Riley's accompanying gritty guitar style and impassioned vocal style were a perfect foil for Carr's phenomenal drumming. Their upbeat set had the audience doing call and response on "Got My Mojo Working." In tribute to Carr, who was celebrating his 78th birthday, the audience happily shouted "Happy Birthday" at every opportunity.
One of my favorite artists, Kenny Neal, brought me back out into the rain and it was a performance well worth braving the elements. Neal and his brothers, Frederick on keyboards and Darnell on bass, were at the top of their form on this occasion. Their Louisiana swamp blues was just what the doctor ordered for a rainy evening. Kenny's vocals were strong and his guitar playing sizzled.
The Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor closed out the day's festivities in a commanding performance. Taylor has come back strong after a major illness and she sounded superb. Taylor's blues phasing and delivery were well on display this evening.
The rain came in buckets on Saturday and the grounds became
puddles and colorful umbrellas were all one could see of the hardy audience
who stuck it out. The first set of the day was Blind Mississippi Morris,
a splendid harmonica player in the traditional blues style. Craig Horton
(photo at left) is a native of Arkansas who now lives in the San Francisco
Bay Area and he brought along his band consisting of Steve Gannon on guitar,
Michael Skinner on drums and Henry Oden on bass. Horton was resplendent
in a bright yellow suit and his stinging electric guitar and soulful vocals
on the tune "Try Me" were awesome. Sam Myers (fashionably outfitted
in pink - photo at right), along with Anson Funderburgh and The Rockets,
delighted the audience with his imaginative harmonica playing and rich vocal
style. Despite the downpour by this part of the evening, the audience was
enthralled by the appearance of the acclaimed Holmes Brothers consisting
of brothers Wendell on guitar and keyboards, Sherman on bass and brother-in-spirit
Popsy Dixon on drums. This was an inspiring showing of roots-influenced
gospel and blues.
The rain overcame me by this time and I caught only snatches of the performance of master keyboardist, Marcia Ball, who sounded wonderful from my spot under the tent backstage. The closing act was Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown who is reportedly battling cancer and the reports I got from those who remained for his set was that he sounded strong and did an outstanding show.
King Biscuit Blues Festival goes down in my book as a blues experience of a lifetime. It is incomparable for the cordial atmosphere created by a staff which is accessible and exceedingly gracious. The festival Director, Wayne Andrews, reported that although Thursday's attendance was strong, the festival did not meet the expected attendance which is usually 100,000 people, and ended up with an attendance estimated at about 55,000. Despite the elements, everyone I met proclaimed it one of the best blues festivals ever and we are all making plans for the pilgrimage next year.
On Sunday, everyone goes to the Hopson Commissary located four miles from Clarksdale and the legendary Crossroads at the intersection of Highways 49 and 61. There is nothing like this production in my experience of attending every type of musical event over the years. Pat Morgan, a former Bay Area resident, who now spends a lot of time in the Delta and is the manager for Pinetop Perkins, has been presenting this event for the past four years and it has grown into a "must do" with over four hundred people in attendance this day. It is billed as "Homecoming for Pinetop" and guitarist Bob Margolin acted as M.C. and led the house band. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, we heard blues like it is not played anywhere else and obviously the ambience inspires everyone to take it to the ultimate. One of the most entertaining performances was that of jump boogie pianist Mitch Woods who considers Pinetop a major influence on his style. Pinetop Perkins usually refuses to play on Sundays, but he gave it his all on this day. One of the highlights of the day was a presentation of Pinetop's portrait painted by a locally renowned artist. Many of the King Biscuit Blues Festival performers came to party and jam and when it seemed that it could get no better, here came another stupendous collaboration. The show started at 3 p.m. and when I left at 10 p.m., 91 year old Pinetop Perkins was still there basking in the adulation of his admirers.
High on my list of things to see while in the Delta was the sleepy town of Clarksdale. We started off the day with a stop at the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art shop presided over by blues enthusiast Roger Stolle who had an impressive display of records, books and everything devoted to the blues. Most extraordinary was the art work for sale which included guitars handmade from gas cans by the blues musician Super Chikun. Next on the itinerary was lunch at Morgan Freeman's restaurant/juke joint, Ground Zero, which is a funky venue where countless blues artists perform on a regular basis. Pinetop Perkins and friends including the jump boogie pianist Mitch Woods and the Delta bluesman T-Model Ford soon came in where it quickly became a party. The next stop was at the Delta Blues Museum which was presenting a traveling exhibit of Chicago blues which was an amazing display of instruments, clothing and historical information. Part of the regular museum collection was a replica of "Muddy Cabin" which featured a life-sized figure of Muddy Waters. A most intriguing experience was my visit to the Riverside Hotel, originally a hospital where Bessie Smith died in 1937. Now an operating hotel with very comfortable rooms presided over by Frank Ratliff, the place reeks of history and my lengthy conversation with "Rat" was revealing with him spinning stories about all the luminaries who have visited.
A visit to the Delta must include a stop in Memphis which is only about
sixty miles from Clarksdale. At B. B. King's club in Memphis on Beale Street
on Monday night, the Carl Drew Band was playing featuring Jesse
Dodson on organ who played with Albert King for many years. Drew is
an 81 year old guitarist/vocalist who displayed boundless energy moving
around in the audience. Drew's stinging guitar style was stupendous. Dodson
wowed the audience with his performance of the tune "Dock Of The Bay"
on vocals and organ. It was great to see a club filled on a Monday night
listening to the real thing!
Isaac Hayes has a new club/restaurant and it is a beautiful venue with
a huge stage, large dance floor and tiered booths which allows a great sightline
to the stage. While we enjoyed dinner on Tuesday evening, Ben Cauley, performing
solo on vocals/keyboards/drum machine/trumpet in a marvelous demonstration
of an entertaining one-man show.
There were so many experiences during this trip that brought back memories from the past, one of the more emotional was visiting the Lorraine Hotel, now the National Civil Rights Museum. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is an unbelievable journey back to soul and funk beginnings. There is so much more to see in this region that I can't wait 'til next year!
photos and article by Dorothy L. Hill
Jazz Now Interactive November 2004 Vol 14 No. 7 - Table of Contents
Copyright Jazz Now, November2004 issue, all rights reserved.