A look back at the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival, the King Biscuit Blues Festival, and the Handy Awards.
A journey up Route 55 to fabled Highway 61 leads into the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where the blues knows no seasons and lost souls are always welcome.
Greenville, Mississippi is a mecca of southern hospitality and home of the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival on September 18. Over 20,000 people jammed together in a scorched brown field, primed for the task of butt-shaking to 25 acts split between a monster main stage and a makeshift tiny “juke” stage. The Canton Southernaires kicked things off with a sweet gospel set, their moving harmonies setting the tone for a day. untarnished by any crowd squabbling or fights, an all-too-rare feat in a 12 hour stretch of heavy alcohol consumption and mind-bending sun.
Everyone was simply too wrapped up in the music. First powerhouse act of the day was Big Jack “The Oilman” Johnson, who lived up to his reputation as one of the area’s most feared guitarists. Wielding a white Stratocaster, Big Jack took even .the tired standard “The Blues is Alright” through his machine-shop soloing, causing the right hand speaker stack to momentarily short out. When he grabbed a red guitar that resembled a space-age pitchfork for Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker,” his slide work screamed like UFOs descending on Greenville.
Sax man and Howlin’ Wolf alumni Eddie Shaw, the “movin and groovin’ man”, stepped up next, proving he wasn’t resting on past-association laurels. Grinning infectiously and honking righteously, Shaw flaunted his sense of humor with tunes like “Dunkin’ Donut Woman,” and while it was only Saturday, the crowd knew just what he was talking about when he sang of calling in sick on Monday after “Too Much Weekend.”
His son Vaan backed him up with some serious guitar chops, sending Buddy Guy style flurries behind his father’s horn leads.
As the main stage rocked, the juke stage offered some truly sublime moments. Piano Bob and the Snowman respectively teamed up for some boogie-woogie piano and acoustic guitar picking, chugging through “Beer Drinking Woman” with vigor. It was the Reverend Leon Pinson and Elder Wilson, however, who will remain indelibly etched on my mind. With Mr. Pinson gracefully accompanying him on harmonica, the Reverend sat dressed in his Sunday suit, cradling his guitar, eyes clouded over and transfixed heavenward. Singing “Jesus Is On the Mainline,” he embodied the very essence of the blues–a blending of the sacred with the secular using humble resolve.
The biggest surprise of the festival came as I wandered backstage to grab a brief respite under a tent, only to hear the first chords of “Hoochie Coochie Man” blast out and a unanimous roar go up from the crowd. Venturing back out to discover who was responsible for the commotion, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a young clean-cut kit who looked like Ritchie Valens reincarnated.
Dumbfounded, I watched 17-year-old Hamilton loomis switch from piano to harmonica to guitar, even tackling “Red House” with supreme confidence. Onlookers were visibly and justifiably stunned; this kid has the goods, and while his take on George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” may have been out of place, give Hamilton a few years on the road and some heartaches, and I predict everyone is going to know his name, both inside and outside of blues circles. When the sun finally went down, king of sexual mischief Bobby Rush came out, flanked by six stunning back-up dancers in sheer black dresses. His Vegas-style revue was as racy as it gets, and Rush effortlessly worked the crowd, drawing screams of approval with his double entendres and slinky grooves. Songs such as “I Ain’t Studdin’ You” were priceless, the kind of stuff your parents warned you about.
The final acts of the night had a tough gauntlet to run, and it showed. Shirley Brown was her usual classy self, gliding through blues-soul excursions like “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry,” but fans were obviously itching for more down-n-dirty material. By the time headliner lattimore closed things down with his slick band, most of the spectators had gone home to improve on Bobby Rush’ stage act themselves.
Gettin’ down in Greenville immediately fueled plans for another Delta foray: the eighth annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, held in Helena, Arkansas on October 9-10.
Helena has a rich blues history, and is renowned for launching the career of harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson, along with a host of other giants, including Robert Jr. Lockwood and Pinetop Perkins. In the early 1940s local radio station KFFA broadcast the King Biscuit Time radio hour, where listeners could hear Sonny Boy and friends play as they pitched the virtues of cooking with King Biscuit flour.
KFFA still presents “King Biscuit Time” today, and Helena steadfastly takes the blues as seriously as their biscuits and barbecue. This year’s festival offered a staggering talent line-up, spread out over two days of revelry on the levee off downtown Cherry St. Amazingly, promoters have kept the festivities free, letting local vendors profit from an insatiable food-and-souvenir hungry crowd.
The musicians involved get caught up in the spirit of the town, and it was evident on the stage. Friday, promising local hero Lonnie Shields refused to let a no-show from his band damper things, turning his afternoon set into an impromptu and heart-felt gospel testimonial. I sat down soaking it up on the railroad tracks that run parallel to the Big Muddy as the sun set, and the big names came out to work some nighttime magic.
Frank “Midnight Prowler” Frost, best known for his role in the movie Crossroads, reached deep down for some rough and tumble harmonica work and shivering vocals. Stomping, pleading, and hollering through one compelling tale after another, Frost closed with a brooding and plaintive instrumental that eloquently showed why the harmonica continues to attract legions of up-and-coming blues harp players.
A couple of back-to-back Lone Star state guitar slingers followed to lay claim to Texas’ contribution to the contemporary blues scene. No, it wasn’t an official duel, but there was no doubt that Smokin’ Joe Kubek’s trick bag of tasty slide, textures and tones is rapidly eclipsing Anson Funderburgh’s stream of slow building runs and solos. After watching Kubek raucously playoff of frontman Bnois King’s vocals and respectable guitar work, Funderburgh laying back behind “Sweet” Sam Myers endless vocal schtick (“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a privilege and an honor,” ad nauseam) was, well, stale. Blues cognoscenti endlessly praise Funderburgh’s band the Rockets, but I’ll take Kubek’s outfit any day of the week.
I’d never seen Chicago harp master Billy Branch before, but after his devastating headline set on Friday I’d drive a day just to catch him holding court somewhere. He nailed the thinly veiled viciousness of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’: and added lusty harmonica figures to “Feel Like Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home” and Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles.” Technically flawless, Branch is clearly deserving of widespread recognition; go to any length to check him out.
Saturday was bone-cold and rainy, a mere distraction. Elder statesman CeDell Davis quickly drew the biggest ovation of the day: polio gnarled his hands as a child, but Davis learned to fit a table knife through his right hand fingers to play slide, resulting in a frighteningly intense and watery sound that mesmerizes. His set drew from his stellar new CD Feel Like Doin’ Somethin’ Wrong, and when he was physically lifted up by stage hands into his wheelchair after an encore, it generated quiet reflection from,all witnesses.
The James Harman Band brought everyone back to hip-grinding land with swampy boogie from their new effort, Two Sides To Every Story. Harmon and his cohorts are the quintessential working man’s band, and stuck around after their own performance to back up one of the most exciting pairings of the night: James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins. Cotton raved and stalked the bandstand, blowing harp like a man possessed, and Pinetop’s piano playing was impeccable, coloring songs like “Black Night” with assured finesse.
Pinetop’s former King Biscuit Time associate Robert Jr. Lockwood also made an appearance, reprising the original King Biscuit theme with his backing band of “entertainers.” Lockwood is dignity personified, and his jazzy guitar on classics like “Mr. Downchild” showed why he long ago stepped out of the shadow of being Robert Johnson’s protege to be his own man.
I didn’t stick around for headliner Johnny Copeland, because word on the street was that Big Bad Smitty was going to jam with Frank Frost at Eddie’s, a nearby juke joint. Smitty had already dazzled earlier in the day, teaming with venerable Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin for eerie and commanding versions of Wolf favorites like “Louise”and “How Many More Years: and a Smitty-Frost summit was not to be missed.
The scene at Eddie’s was raw and primal: locals and tourists crammed into a dark kitchen-style hall, complete with battered linoleum floors, peeling walls, and a suspect back bathroom area I was sure I’d seen somewhere in footage of a police raid. Bottles were being passed openly, Smitty and Frank were raging through one dirty guitar and harmonica duel after another, and it was blues nirvana. A New Orleans home boy even got in on the action: Jimmy lves, bass player for Michael Ward and Reward, rescued a hapless bassist from repeated tongue-lashings by Big Bad Smitty by stepp in’ in and laying down a solid bottom.
Then things started to get a little ugly. Smitty was getting highly agitated at a crew of drunk and obnoxious girls who insisted on sitting on his lap during breaks; some local women started openly accosting men for money, more liquor, and sex; gunshots could be heard just a few blocks away. My group of friends rounded up quickly and scampered out, and we were briefly followed by a couple of guys who insisted we come “around the corner and drink some wine.” We escaped and hightailed it to Memphis, where, after reassuring ourselves we were in one piece we crashed in a Howard Johnson’s and listened to AM gospel radio until 5:30 in the morning.
Next up were the Handy Awards in Memphis. The Handys are the blues equivalent of a Grammy, and while they’re a great idea, if you’ve ever watched any awards show on television you can imagine how excruciatingly boring they are live.
With the exception of Buddy Guy, almost no recipients were on hand to accept their awards, and acts like Charlie Musselwhite and Johnny Copeland had the unpleasant task of trying. to work up steam for one song in front of a stiff crowd. The after-hours jams at The Daisy and Huey’s were a little better, but it was clearly time to put the weekend to bed.