Arkansas Blues and Heritage and Delta Trip – Part Three

Posted on: Thursday, Oct 22, 2009

Arkansas Blues and Heritage and Delta Trip – Part Three

Days 5, 6 and 7

Days five, six and seven are the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival days.  The Festival runs from Thurs lunchtime to Sat night.  On the Thurs only the main stage is running but for the Friday and Saturday they open the second Houston Stackhouse Stage what I can the “small stage” for some acoustic and low key band events.

See my festival map.

In the height of the festival it’s a great walk between the two main stages.  You have all the food stands and other stalls vying for trade.  You have the street musicians of great quality doing their stuff with the festival goers and the locals all mingling.
I don’t think that the festival acts were of the same extreme super quality as last year but the music was brilliant and the atmosphere is second to none.

Once again I was an honourary Welshman but the next time I will take an English or even better a white rose flag.  All credit to the Welsh boyos in the party (namely The Punmeister, Schnookie the Money Launderer and Propyhlactic Pete) for training people all week about Wales – the fact that it’s not England and that both Jim Beam and Jack Daniels were Welshmen etc.  I don’t believe that there is a zone of the US with more Welsh knowledge than West Helena, Arkansas on festival day.

They always say that for “The Biscuit”, as everyone continues to call it, you need to pack for three climates – hot, cold and wet.  Although I didn’t realise that it was possible to have all three in one festival.  Thursday was hot and lovely.  Friday was wet.  Sat was OK but much cooler.

Festival Day 1 – Thursday
We arrived early each day to secure safe parking close to the festival site with lovely George who watches the car all day from his truck or his deckchair depending on the weather.  I strongly believe that he thinks we are mad, travelling from six thousand miles away to sit on the levee in downtown Helena watching blues.

Here’s a picture of the early arrivals on the first day.  Note the nice weather and the Welsh Dragon.

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We also met the North East boys again.

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You will read much better critical reviews of the festival than I can ever write because as you know, I am not much of a reviewer.  I am hoping that Pete Evans will be sending some text that is more appropriate for a review that will be published here.
However I will take a stab about commenting on some of the acts that I saw at the various festival locations and at the non festival venues that we visited.

The Hitmen from Memphis kicked off with twin guitars and harp in the band playing some driving blues.  A more modern sound from the Kings of the Delta were next with loadsa guitar effects and a funky approach.  Then Gypsy Rain, a standard set of blues fronted by big voiced Charlotte Taylor.

Up next was Johnnie Billington with his young band from his blues in schools programme followed by one of the festival highlights – a very entertaining J.P. Soars from Boca Raton, FL who comes highly recommended.  Check out YouTube for a clip of him playing Johnny Guitar Watson on a home made cigar box guitar (not from this festival).  Seasick Steve – eat your heart out.  Good band too.
One of the sweetest voices was next – Luscious Spiller based in Little Rock, Arkansas; he’s from a very bluesy family and has a great vocal range – from a deep bluesy growl to Prince-like soul.  He was a little let down by some obvious song choices but was a great break from the norm.

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We made an early exit to see the CD launch of Jimmy Duck Homes at Red’s Lounge Clarksdale (not really my cup of Darjeeling) missing the festival acts Dave Thomson, John Primer and The Cate Brothers (who I heard were very good with R. J. Mischo sitting in).

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Festival Day 2 – Friday

Wet!  A huge rainstorm forced us to pull off the highway between Clarksdale and Helena.  We were prepared with some good waterproofs and the best $18 I ever spent – on a pair of brown duck hunting Wellington boots.

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The crowds were certainly down on last year but we soldiered on.  We missed the worst rain by dining twice in the lovely little cafe on Cherry St.

Harmonica Shah kicked off using a pick-up band with a good guitarist.  I missed most of the set of Kevin Naquin and the Ossun playboys.  Clearly a Cajun style band with that name.  What I heard was very good but while missing them I enjoyed a lunch of Amber Bock, chicken, black eyed peas and brilliant mashed potato.

Dave Riley and Big Jack Johnson dedicated a song from their set of Mississippi Blues to the recently passed Sam Carr.

A highlight followed.  83 (I think) year old Red Holloway with his sax and his Witherspoon voice led his crack band of jazzers through some cool blues and jazzy blues standards.  Doggett’s Honky Tonk, some Cleanhead, River’s Invitation.  Great stuff!  The band were topper with great Hammond work and an ace shuffling drummer in a very nice suit.  During this set I was caught out by Schnookie: I admired the guitar and Schnook told me that he could tell that it was a D’Angelico due to the detailing on the scratchplate and the particular shape of the headstock.  Suitably impressed I congratulated him on his amazing knowledge of hollow bodies, to which he replied that it was easy to tell the guitar make using a big digital zoom, you take the pic then use the camera to zoom in then read the label.  Pah!

After a nice steak dinner at the cafe I enjoyed Arthur Mississippi Williams performing a fun set of blues standards with a cheeky smile and a fabulous young 18 year old guitarist in the band.  Michael Burks was the other highlight of the day for me.  He delivered a powerhouse set of blues and blues rock that was super-intense.  This was lapped up by the sparse crowd.  He’d slay any festival over here.  I’m not normally a blues rock fan but Burks is great.

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The rain came back soon after Michael Burks and we were driven away so missed a couple of what I heard were great sets one by Bobby Rush, with his usual killer-schtick on the main stage and Lonnie Shields on the small stage.

Festival Day Three – Saturday

We missed a big blues breakfast at Brad’s camper van – he was offended that we weren’t there until we reminded him that he had forgotten to mention it the day before and we didn’t know about it.

Our night was spent drying chairs, bags and clothes – lots of window condensation in Clarksdale that night.  Saturday was considerable colder as the front had passed and we had northerlies blowing in from the subzero Midwest.  At least it was dry!

Willie P and NTO Band played a set of standard soul infected southern blues.  In the afternoon there was an interesting clash.  Hamilton Loomis played the main stage with his funky band and his rocky guitar whilst Mississippi old timer Eddie Cusic played traditionally on the small stage.  I flitted between the two.  The blues really is a broad church.

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After a lovely cafe lunch (can you spot the trend – we loved the chairs, tables, food and most of all the hot water in the clean toilet of the cafe.) I was once again completely blown away by the incredible Reba Russell – she’s got such a voice to make Connie Lush sound like a 16 year old X-Factor reject (not that Connie is not good – it’s just that Reba is that good).  For the second year she was a festival highlight – stunning.

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John Hammond was as intense as ever – it’s a hard gig to be solo on the main stage after a killer band but Hammond can do it better than anyone.

I strolled over to see Big Jack Johnson and band on the small stage and had a very lucky escape.  He asked if there were any harp players in the crowd – luckily, I was slow and had not had time to check the key properly before some poor guy jumped up.  The trouble was the that band had tuned to each other and not to a tuner (or harp) and consequently were playing in G and a half.  Not a good sound with a harp.  Yikes!

Anson Funderburgh, his super cool guitar and tight band played next.  Anson is a festival regular and has played 24 years on the trot.  Since Sweet Sammy passed away he has used various vocalists and this year it was Lee McBee, who I haven’t seen for 11 years.  The band were good but did not blow anyone away, plus the harp was a little low in the mix.

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Our steak in the cafe was followed by a bread pudding “so good makes you wanna slap your mama”.

The Delta groove guys closed the festival.  Mitch Kashmar played some really beautiful pretty harp in his set with the Steve Edmonson band backing, before Kashmar left the stage and the band changed into their canary yellow suits to back Jackie Payne for some soul blues.  I can’t help but think that the wealthy and commendable Delta Groove sponsored the fest to get two label headliners.  For the record, Kashmar’s vocals were not really strong enough for the big stage – I’d love to see that band in a club setting.

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