Review: Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival 2008

Posted on: Monday, Oct 27, 2008


9th to 11th OCT 2008


The festival (formerly known as The King Biscuit Festival) takes place in the little town of Helena, Arkansas on a beautiful grassy bank of the levee of the Mississippi river looking down on to a permanent stage, named after Sonny Boy Williamson, whilst there is a smaller second stage set amongst some of the older decaying buildings of this town which saw much prosperity many years ago when cotton was the king.

The weather was pleasantly warm on the first day when for the first 5 hours the emerging bands that had won the right to appear at the festival by winning the various competitions set by the different blues societies graced the stage. Of these winners there were a number of very fine performers indeed including from Natchuk Russia, Arsen Shomakhov who won last year’s festival’s emerging artist competition. He was backed by a Canadian rhythm section and really was a superb guitarist. Two other bands of note were The Brethren from Arkansas  playing a raw harp and guitar blues and Trampled Under Foot, the 2008 Memphis International Blues Challenge winners whose guitarist Nick Schnebelen won the 2008 Albert King Award for the best guitarist. This Kansas band also had Nick’s sister Danielle a super vocalist on bass and brother Chris on drums.

The star of the 1st day then took the stage. Reba Russell, a powerful vocalist in the Etta James/Janis Joplin mould has been singing blues around the Memphis area for years mainly as a session and backing vocalist and featured on U2’s Rattle and Hum album. In recent years she has put together a cracking band full of experience and they powered through a superb set and her sexy, sassy delivery immediately raised the tempo especially on the track “Heaven Came to Helena” and on her closing “When Love Comes To Town”. It is hoped that she may visit the UK next year.

Next up was country boy Webb Wilder and The Beatnecks from Nashville with their Hillbilly based Rock ‘n’Roll . Great entertainer Webb kept the party going in true country fashion before giving way to Alligator recording artist Tinsley Ellis. Alligator boss Bruce Iglauer introduced guitarist Tinsley and said that on occasions he might be slightly rocky.  In all honesty, his set was very rocky and whilst there is no denying that he is a superb guitarist, some of the solos did stretch on a little too far. However his song “Sell my soul to the devil for a dime” was a cracking track.

The day finished with “The Champions of R’n’B” and featured Al Garner, James Nixon, Johnny Jones, Earl Gaines and regular UK visitor Charles Walker. Time permitted us to see only Al Garner and James Nixon and they performed 3 or 4 tracks each of very pleasant soul drenched R’n’B with the ever present Fred James on guitar and calling the shots.

Day 2

Friday was even hotter than the previous day and the second stage came into action firstly as the acoustic Houston Stackhouse stage and then after 5.30pm as the electric Robert Junior Lockwood stage. First up on this stage was the duo Elam McKnight on National Steel guitar and Bob Bogdal on harp and they played a very pleasant opener although round the corner on Cherry Street, Terry “Harmonica” Bean was drawing a big crowd with his one man band – a very slick performer indeed who will be appearing at Shakedown Blues Club in Castor, Peterborough early next year.

The main stage opened with a regular visitor to the UK in young Texan guitarist Hamilton Loomis who whilst not possessing the strongest of voices, can certainly play the guitar. He reminds me of Aynsley Lister though is possibly more versatile. He also plays rack harp and the stand out track was “The Best Worst Day of My Life”.

On the acoustic stage Sweden based American Bert Deivert gave a superb set of covers on the resonator guitar and resonator mandolin joined by Clarksdale area regular Bill Abel on guitar. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Broke and Hungry” was the top number, performed in the style of Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell.

On the main stage last year, the legendary but very poorly Sam Carr came out of hospital in a wheelchair to spend 10 minutes on the stage. It was therefore wonderful this year to see him looking much better and able to perform a good half hour with his band The Delta Jukes fronted by guitarist Dave Riley who took vocals on “The Jelly Roll King”. Also on stage were Fred James and his wife Mary-Ann Brandon.

Chicago guitarist Carl Weathersby is a firm favourite in Helena and his first number involved a long walkabout amongst the main stage crowd – always a good opener to get the pulses racing. He performed superbly with the standout tracks, the title of his last release “Hold On” and his own dedication track to Isaac Hayes.

Some of the Muddy Waters alumni then took the main stage to great applause. Guitarist Bob Margolin was joined by Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums and guest Bob Stroger on bass. They performed Margolin’s “Going to Chicago” with superb Muddy style slide guitar before 95 year old Pinetop Perkins spectacularly dressed all in red entered the stage. Playing remarkably well he went straight into the vocals of “Down in Mississippi” before another of Muddy’s old boys, 82 year old Calvin “Fuzzy” Jones took over bass guitar duties as the band went through a repertoire of classics including “Got My Mojo Working” and “Kansas City” – all wonderful stuff.

This was going to be difficult to follow but Mem Shannon and his band from New Orleans managed to keep the groove going with some great funky music but meanwhile there were some great acts appearing on the second stage. Moreland and Arbuckle are a very good acoustic guitar and harp duo from Kansas and their playing has more than a hint of the North Mississippi style of music.

After them came Arthur Williams, originally from Mississippi but now St Louis via Chicago. He is a 71 year old harp player in the typical Chicago style and with a very good band behind him was a treat to see. His closing “Bright Lights, Big City” was the perfect encore to a great set.

He was then followed by, in my opinion, one of the best sets of the whole festival when Willie King and The Liberators took the stage. Willie from the woods of Alabama has one of the tightest bands around and they soon had the whole audience up and dancing.
With Englishman Rick Asherson on keyboards and his wife Debbie Bond on guitar, the top tracks were “Run Sally Run” and his version of Wolf’s “Spoonful”.

Meanwhile on the main stage the recording meter went into the red zone when the phenomenal guitarist Michael Burks took the stage. He is a great favourite in Helena and played and sang superbly throughout and especially on his debut cd title track “Make It Rain”.

Back to the second stage, Guitar Mac from Arkansas but a resident of Saramento for some years, gave a rather disjointed performance on electrified resonator despite having the superb backing band of Bob Margolin, Robert Stroger and Willie Smith. He didn’t seem to be communicating with them too well. As the set moved on though it did improve and he does possess a fine voice.

Closing up the second day was the Severn Records 10th anniversary Soul and Blues Revue. It started off superbly with a great brass section and girlie backing vocals with firstly Darrell Nulisch and then Tad Robinson taking the vocals. Playing excellent guitar throughout was Alex Schultz. Sadly, a commitment meant that Lou Pride was missed.

Day 3

The final day commenced with a very fine set by Canadian guitarist Sean Kellerman and his band. A nice slide guitar opener continued in that vein – someone to look out for.

In the street there were some really good performers, and with the temperature in the high 80s, Little Jimmy Reed played for 3 hours in the mid afternoon sun drawing a good crowd. He played electric guitar to backing tapes and did a superb job. Another interesting street guitarist was a young girl from Tennessee, Valerie June who had a lovely soft haunting voice and was accompanied by her male partner on mandolin. Nice to hear such passionate acoustic blues from a young African American. Also of note was guitarist 19th Street Red from New Orleans with a voice uncannily like Ian Siegal or was it Howling Wolf, and harp player Deak Harp (That is his second name!).

Eb Davis originally from Arkansa is now resident in Germany and is a very popular soul, R’n’B singer over in that country having won a number of music awards. His set, backed by a superbly tight backing band featuring his German keyboard player, Nina Davis featured a good mix of soul and blues with the standout tracks “Might Be Your Man, I Don’t Know” and “I Just Like To Sing the Blues”

The last time I saw guitarist Eddie Turner was in Chicago with Otis Taylor in 2005. Since parting company, Eddie, also from Colorado has been fronting his own band with his loud, funky groves. “Blues Fell Down Like Rain” was the standout from a vey good set.

On the second stage a very impressive young one man band by the name of Ben Prestage had gathered a large audience with his form of Florida swamp blues. With an amazing rig of drums and cymbals and playing cigar box and other guitars, his driving rhythms of mainly covers made him someone to look out for – very impressive.

Since Little Charlie left his Nightcats in the capable hands of harpman Rick Estrin, it was going to be interesting to see the result. There was to be no disappointment – they were excellent with Norwegian “Kid” Andersen outstanding on guitar. The silky smooth swing of this tight band excelled on “That’s Big”.

All I can say about Janiva Magness is …WOW. With the busiest man of the weekend Bob Margolin on guitar, she belted out an awesome set of bluesy soul to prove why see is one of the biggest festival draws in the USA. With her powerful vocals and stage presence, her top numbers were “I’m Just A Prisoner” and “That’s What Love Will Make You”.

Texan Anson Funderburgh has played at every “King Biscuit” but his band were very slow to get into the groove and seemed directionless until he introduced Joe Jonas to take over vocals and the effect was immediate. With his powerful, deep voice he lifted not only the audience but also the band and from what started out as a very ordinary set was transformed to an excellent conclusion with such covers as “Everyday I have The Blues” and “The Thrill is Gone”.

An interesting character then appeared on the second stage. Guitarist Sterling “Mister Satan” Magee was Mississippi born before he moved to New York playing the blues in Harlem. On stage with him was Adam Gussow (Professor of English at Oxford University, Mississippi)on harp who hitched up with him in the 80s and whilst they only played a short set due to a technical delay, it was very enjoyable.

With Bob Margolin (again!) on guitar, Bob Stroger and Willie Smith now on his first instrument, the harp, Hubert Sumlin took the stage perhaps not as sprightly as in the last few years but nonetheless as good as I’ve heard him in that time. Going through a selection of his standards, he played with real assurance and control.

On the second stage two of the young men in whom the blues future rests, Cedric Burnside on drums and Lightning Malcolm on guitar gave one of the best performances of the weekend keeping alive the legacy of the north Mississippi driving blues of their illustrious predecessors R.L. Burnside (Cedric’s grandfather) and Junior Kimborough.
The whole of the second stage area was absolutely bouncing with a juke joint atmosphere being created with dancers climbing onto the stage – absolutely superb. With respect – look out The Black Keys.

The final act on the second stage was to be Muddy Waters harpman Mojo Buford with veteran Memphis guitarist Papa Don McMinn and his two sons Doug on drums and Rome on bass but sadly 78 year old Mojo was taken ill on the morning so at the last moment Reba Russell and her keyboard player Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms took over and a great set was delivered.

There had been a number of acts that it was just not possible to see due to many commitments and so apologies to those acts not reviewed .It was therefore over to the main stage for the final act of the three days, the amazingly fit looking 72 year old Bobby Rush. He had received the Sonny Boy Award for 2008 in appreciation for what he had done for blues prior to his appearance on the main stage. He had appeared earlier on the second stage playing acoustic guitar but the stage area was packed solid so it was impossible to get anywhere near it. However, on the main stage he presented the whole revue – risqué remarks, big girls shaking their booties, oversized ladies drawers and phenomenally tight music that had the whole festival area up and dancing -what a show. It was a remarkable occasion and the perfect way to end a festival. Oh to see that revue headlining a major UK festival. The Brits would love it. Promoters take note.

Yet again the organisers of “The Biscuit” have delivered the goods – a brilliant three days and our thanks go to Bubba Sullivan, Rayne Gordon, Jerry Pillow and all the organisers and volunteers who continue to work so hard to make this festival the best blues event in the world .


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