Review: Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, Helena. 4-6 October

Posted on: Monday, Nov 5, 2007

If you ever only go to one festival again in your life then it has to be The Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival or as everyone still calls it, The King Biscuit Festival.

It was the friendliest, most relaxed festival I’ve ever been to with the quality of the music unsurpassed, leaving us with some great memories.

I knew we were in for a good time when a big burly guy with a deep southern drawl said within minutes of us setting up our cheap $3.99 Walmart chairs – “Say, where do y’all guys come from”
“North Wales” was our response.
“Uh huh – wrote my Harley off when I skidded on some sheep shit in Llangollen last February!!”
Amongst 30,000 people we had to be sitting next to a retired USAF major who had been stationed in the UK and used to ride his bike around North Wales!
Anyway, enough of that, on with the review…

The festival opened to unseasonably high temperatures of mid to high 90s in the marvellous setting of the little town of Helena with the main stage overlooked by the levee of the Mississippi river.

The opening day featured acts on only the main stage and for the first four hours, bands that had won various emerging artist competitions entertained the growing crowd.
Of particular note were Big Red and her band from Arkansas, a fiery redhead with a great soulful voice and Memphis International Blues Challenge winner Sean Carney, an excellent guitarist.

Arkansas regular, the larger than life Stirling Billingsley upped the tempo with some great guitar backed by a rhythm section and harp player playing together for the first time. No-one would have known as they ripped through Red House and Rock Me.

The tempo was kicked even higher when Diunna Greenleaf and her band played an outstanding set mainly taken from her latest release Cotton Field To Coffee House.
With evergreen Bob Margolin on bass guitar and Jonn Deltorro Richardson on lead guitar (Otis Taylor’s guitarist on his recent UK tour) she got many of the audience up dancing with her cover of Possession Over Judgement Day and kept it going with her Tribute To John Lee Hooker but then showed a more mellow side with her rendition of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Going To Come. Throughout, the guitar work of Jonn Richardson really impressed and it’s easy to see why he won The Albert King award for best unsigned blues guitarist in 2005. Diunna really was the star though and gave as good a performance as any of the better known blues divas.

To follow this set was going to be a difficult task but Chicago’s Wayne Baker Brooks and his band did a superb job although many would say that they are perhaps more on the rockier side of the blues spectrum. Certainly some of his more protracted solos did stretch a little too far, but then again he would chip in with a more typical Chicago blues number. Whatever the opinion, they were certainly well received and Wayne has inherited the Brooks family genes in abundance.

California based Blinddog Smokin’ opened up slowly but the tempo increased when fine young guitarist Gino Matteo played his Drinkin’ Straight Tequila. They then played their dedication to The Biscuit, Sittin’ On The Levee with strong vocals from frontman Carl Gustafson before the legendary Bobby Rush quietly made his entry. Not the usual big show from the fit looking 73 year old but instead he collected an acoustic guitar and sat at the front of the stage a la Buddy Guy. He then proceeded through half a dozen covers including Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and How Long. After great applause he collected a harp and joined Blinddog Smokin’ for their final track to conclude a great set.

We missed the final act The Lee boys but were back next morning for a brilliant opening set by one of the most under-rated harp players in the USA, R.J.Mischo. After an opening Crawling King Snake he moved into a superb Rollin’ and Tumblin’ demonstrating his full range. We hope to see him in the UK next year.

Li’l Dave Thompson from Greenville won a WC Handy award in 1997 and it’s easy to see why. A great no frills guitarist he fronted a very tight four piece band with highlights being Hard Headed Woman and Standing in the Rain. Not a powerful vocalist but a very smooth player, he also might be seen in the UK next year.

A quick visit over to the Houston Stackhouse Acoustic Stage saw someone who is no stranger to the UK, Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges. He delivered a lovely set including his usual homage to Sam Cooke with You Send Me which segued into What a Wonderful World. Accompanied by a bongo player, he gave a well received Stormy Monday before finishing with Never Alone sang a cappella.

On the main stage The Delta Jukes with Dave Riley and Fred James were appearing and played a good couple of standards before to a standing round of applause, the very frail Sam Carr made his entry in a wheel chair. The legendary drummer has been in very poor health and indeed had arrived from hospital after pleading for his release to be with every body. It was very touching then when he played two numbers before slowly being wheeled off by festival MC Bubba Sullivan, again to massive applause. A true gentleman of the blues.

Bill Abel from Belzoni accompanied by New Jersey harpman, Deke Harp was next on the acoustic stage. Bill had recently toured the UK with Big George Brock and he gave a cracking set also accompanying himself on kick drum and cymbals. 61 Highway, Baby Please Don’t Go and All Night Long were performed superbly.

Texan Smokin’ Joe Kubek with Bnois King were next to grace the main stage and they really did deliver a superb set with Joe’s searing slide guitar mellowed by Bnois’ more straightforward style and his lovely soulful vocals. Most of the tracks were taken from the new, yet to be released Alligator cd which should be out early 2008. Alligator boss Bruce Iglauer was introduced by Bnois to a nice round of applause.

On the acoustic stage Bentonia’s Jimmy “Duck” Holmes gave a lovely set which was a true throw back to early acoustic blues. Taken from his two Broke and Hungry cds the two stand out tracks were Cool Water and Hard Times. When Jimmy finally gets his passport, he is another great artist we hopefully will see in the UK next year.

The Muddy Waters Alumni then appeared on the main stage with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones on bass and Bob Margolin on guitar. They were joined by Tone Cool records founder Richard Rosenblatt on harp.
Eighty one year old Calvin played only a few numbers including the vocals to You Know It Ain’t Right before being replaced by Bob Stroger. Margolin played his standard Going to Chicago with superb guitar before Diunna Greenleaf joined Stroger on You Got To Move. Eventually the oldest man at the festival at 94, the wonderful Pinetop Perkins joined the party and demonstrated superb playing and vocals on Kansas City and Down in Mississippi . A long Got My Mojo Working concluded the party atmosphere that had been created on the stage and in the audience with everyone dancing.

If the party was to continue then Li’l Ed and The Blues Imperials were certainly in the right mood. Their trademark Chicken, Gravy and Biscuits was followed by Got To Find My Baby before Ed went on a long walkabout right up to the levee. A really tight set was setting the second day up nicely for the final two acts but not before a quick trip over to the now renamed 2nd stage which for the evening became the The Robert Lockwood Jr Heritage stage and now featured electric bands. Quick snatches of excellent harp playing by Lockwood’s harpman Wallace Coleman was followed by some excellent Memphis blues from that city’s Brad Webb and friends.

Sherman Robertson is also now a regular visitor to the UK so it was nice to see him with his full American band and he certainly didn’t disappoint with a cracking set which helped to keep the excitement level in the red zone and helped set the tone for the amazing finale with the guitar shoot out between Carl Weathersby, Larry McCray and Michael Burks. What a finale it was – the three of them completely enthralled the audience with a superb display of guitar mastery with each solo better than the last.
Working their way through a series of long covers there was also time for Weathersby to go on a long walkabout before Sherman Robertson was invited back for the final number.
It doesn’t get any better than this.

The final day had Eugene Bridges opening up on the main stage with his regular USA band and he further emphasised the strength of his vocals on a set similar to his acoustic one of the previous day before a first visit to the acoustic stage saw an interesting set by The Mississippi Spoonman with Carla Robinson on bass and Bob Corritorre on harp.

The main stage then presented a great set by Alabama’s Willie King featuring
Ride Sally Ride, Sweet Potato Man and Spoonful, all tracks from his cd One Love. Guitarist Debbie Bond played superbly throughout as did her English husband Rick Asherson on keys. A great tight band that got the earliest dancers on their feet.

A wander over to the second stage saw a nice mix of well played acoustic blues from John-Alex Mason from Colorado before a visit to listen to the various street musicians.
Terry “Harmonica” Bean was certainly the best on view on that day and the standard of all these musicians was indeed very high.

Terry Evans back on the main stage certainly has one of the best voices in blues and he is a good guitarist though not outstanding. Nevertheless he produced a good set including Crossroads, Take a Look at Yourself and Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine.

At the acoustic stage young Kansas duo Aaron Moreland on guitar and Dustin Arbuckle on harp gave a fine set before making way to Roy Bookbinder who is a superb entertainer as well as very fine guitarist. His set included his dedication to some of the fine bluesmen who have passed away over the last few years Another Man Done a Full Go Round. After announcing that “it had been a privilege to sweat with y’all” he finished withNo Matter Where You Go, You’ll Never Find a Man Like Me.

Anson Funderburgh and The Rockets are regulars and firm favourites with the Arkansas audience and they delivered a nice tight set of straightforward Texas blues without raising the tempo too much. Anson is a non fussy guitarist playing very clean licks and the Rockets are a good tight band.

One of the great surprises of the whole weekend was the performance by The Rev Peyton and The Big Damn Band from rural Indiana. What a show they gave with fine steel and slide guitar from the Reverend with backing from his brother Jamie on stripped down drum kit and his wife Breezy on wasboard. With a good mix of blues and gospel covers and originals their stage presence was immense and full of energy.

Part of the whole concept of the King Biscuit Festival was based around the work of the three legendary bluesmen, Houston Stackhouse, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Junior. Sadly the latter died earlier this year but his band appeared to help commemorate this wonderful man. They opened in the swingy jazz mood so reminiscent of Lockwood with the guitar and vocals superbly taken on by Cleveland Fats.
With a full brass section 3 o’ Clock In The Morning was given the full BB King treatment and then Wallace Coleman on harp took the vocals on Take a Little Walk With Me and Mean Red Spider. Robert would have been very proud of them.

The presentation of The Delta Blues Heritage Award was then made to great applause to Hubert Sumlin by festival organiser Rayne Gordon when Hubert was joined on stage by the Willie “Big Eyes Smith” band. Willie gave up his drum stool and played harp throughout the set and Hubert was joined by another guitarist/vocalist as they moved through a series of covers including Killing Floor and Dust My Broom.
They were then joined by the tireless Pinetop Perkins who reprised on the previous night’s show with Down in Mississippi, Got My Mojo Working and How Long.

A final visit to the second stage saw Blind Mississippi Morris with his old partner Brad Webb give a fine show of great harp playing and vocals before the final act for us on the main stage saw Kenny Neal and his band deliver a slick set with Blues Stew and Going to New York Kenny’s guitar highlights before he moved over to harp and a medley of Jimmy Reed numbers.

Sadly we had to leave before the headliners The Mannish Boys made their appearance and there were a number of other acts that we could not report on but this could not detract from what had been an absolutely superb, well organised, friendly, relaxed festival and massive congratulations must go to Rayne Gordon, Bubba Sullivan and all the other organisers and volunteers.


Li'l Ed

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November 5th, 2007 at 22:43
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Hi Pete – Sounds like this was a blast, some cracking acts on! Did you get it from the ‘horse’s mouth’ that RJ Mischo is heading to these shores next year – he’s great! No doubt a lot of these heading to Worthenbury now.


Pete Evans

November 6th, 2007 at 13:38
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H Gra,
yes – he was staying in our hotel and I hope to bring over him, Li’l Dave Thompson and Jimmy Holmes through the contacts I’ve made.


Lectric Liz

November 7th, 2007 at 16:02
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Hi, Pete — Sure did enjoy reading your review of the Biscuit. Sorry I didn’t get to meet you there. If you’re going next year, please be sure to let me know. I’d love to introduce you to my friend, Sonny Payne, at KFFA Radio (King Biscuit Radio Show). Have you met him yet? He enjoys meeting blues lovers from overseas. I’m forwarding a link of your review to RJ Mischo, since you speak so highly of him. Hope to see you next year!


Pete Evans

November 7th, 2007 at 22:10
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Hi Liz
Thanks for the kind words. I was fortunate enough to meet the wonderful Sonny Payne and did spend some time chatting to RJ as he had played at our club in north Wales along with German band BB and The Blues Shacks in, I think it was 2002. Out of interest Liz, do you have a German husband Jurgen because if so, I did meet you.
I’ll certainly be there next year – I’m totally hooked!!
Best wishes
Pete Evans