Review – 24th Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (The King Biscuit Festival) 8 to 10 October 2009

Posted on: Saturday, Oct 24, 2009

24th Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival (The King Biscuit Festival) 8/9/10 October 2009

Helena, Arkansas

The locals in Helena Arkansas reckon that every third festival will be hit by poor weather and certainly the forecast leading up to this festival was not promising, however, the weather did not really matter as the excitement and buzz that this event creates overcomes any apprehension of what the elements might chuck at you.

Having said that, the rain kept away on day one and the opening round of acts made up of the winners from the various local blues competitions. Band of note was the outstanding J.P. Soars and The Red Hots from Florida (2009 IBC winners) with Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Gangster of Love played on a 2 string cigar box guitar the outstanding number. Also featured was a young lady with a belting voice, Charlotte Taylor and her band Gypsy Rain


Next up was 74 year old guitarist Johnnie Billington from Clarksdale Mississippi who has done so much work on the “Blues in the schools” project over the years. He was accompanied by two of his young pupils and he delivered a lovely set of standards.


One of the surprises of the weekend was 47 year old acoustic guitarist Lucious Spiller from Little Rock, Arkansas. A nephew of Magic Sam on one side of his family and Eddie Clearwater on the other side, he was accompanied by bass, drums and trumpet and presented an excellent set of covers with a great gospel version of Little Red. He has a superb voice reminiscent of Stevie Wonder. We chatted to him at Clarksdale on the Sunday and he is someone who would do well on the UK circuit.

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Arkansas regular Stirling Billingsley played a good set which was warmly greeted by the locals before Greenville’s top bluesman Lil’ Dave Thompson showed what a fine guitarist he is.

We left early for Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale to see Bentonia’s Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. It was for the official release of his new cd “Ain’t It Lonesome” on Broke & Hungry Records. Jimmy, probably the last of the Skip James/Jack Owens school, put on a great show. Afterwards chatting to Jimmy and Jeff Konkl his manager, they both felt that Jimmy could overcome his fear of flying to visit the UK next year.

We’d missed three acts at the festival and the lads from the Darlington R’nB club Ian Ross, Pete Brown and Tony (Medium-Large) Bowen informed us that Li’l Dave, John Primer and The Cate Brothers were superb – c’est la vie – there’s so much good going on that you just can’t see it all.

Torrential rain hit with a vengeance the next day and the site resembled a mud bath. Remarkably there were no delays for the 1st act, Harmonica Shah from Detroit. Playing with a pick-up band he gave a competent set. He has a good voice to back up his rather raw harp playing.


Following on the main stage after some excellent Cajun music from Kevin Naquin and The Ossun Players, a sad moment of tribute was made to the recently deceased Helena native, Sam Carr. He had been due to perform with some of his old Jelly Roll Kings, Big Jack Johnson and Dave Riley. The two of them gave him a great poignant send off and MC Bubba Sullivan also announced that an appeal had been set up for a gravestone to commemorate one of the finest of blues drummers. He will be sadly missed.

World famous saxophonist Red Holloway was born in Helena before his family moved to Chicago when he was a child. After an amazing set of blues tinged jazz which featured Cleanhead Blues and Keep Your Hands off My Woman, 82 year old Red, who had played with Billie Holliday, BB King and Bobby Bland amongst others received the Sonny Boy Award for Services to Blues.


Following on the main stage was the evergreen Hubert Sumlin as part of  The Willie “Big Eyes” Smith Band with Willie once again playing harp. Hubert was in great form especially on Sittin’ On Top of the World.

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On the 2nd and 3rd days of the festival, the 2nd stage also features. Initially acoustic acts feature when the stage is named after Robert Jr. Lockwood. Later, with electric acts it is named after Houston Stackhouse and 1st act seen on this stage was Arthur “Mississippi” Williams. From Tunica but now living in St Louis, 72 year old harp player Arthur put on a lively show including a great tribute to Jimmy Reed. However, the undoubted stars were the two young musicians in his band. On keys was Buddy Guy’s cousin Daniel Ladelle Fitzpatrick and on guitar, 18 year old Marquise Knox from Grenada but now of St Louis. Many valued opinions rate him as the finest young guitarist to emerge from the region in years. He has everything and has already come under the watchful eye of Michael Burks. Nice to hear such a young man playing just blues unlike all the young posturing SRV wanabees that we have over here.



There was also a cracking performance on at the acoustic stage by a lovely looking young girl from Chicago, Donna Herula. As the power had been turned off due to the rain, she placed herself on the driest part of the stage and powered by her battery amp and mike treated us to some sublime playing and singing of some classic Blind Blake, John Hurt etc.

Unfortunately due to the weather I missed most of Billy Boy Arnold’s set on the main stage but the rain subsided again in readiness for Helena’s favourite guitarist Michael Burks. The adjective awesome is used freely in America, but it is difficult to find better superlatives to describe this man.

He really is the “in form” guitarist and despite the mud he still managed a walkabout. Star track was Elmore James’s Look on Yonder Wall. Since returning I have spoken to a top UK agent and after telling him about Burks he calmly informed me that he was his priority act to bring over late 2010. I thus grabbed first reservation of a date at the 250 capacity Overton on Dee hall that hosted Mud Morganfield earlier this year.


The rain kept away most of the final day and the 1st act to be seen was Eddie Cusic on the 2nd stage. From Leland Mississippi, 83 year old Eddie is a fine old school acoustic guitarist. However, the temperature had dropped 30 degrees in two days and the colder weather was affecting his fingers for which he kept apologising. However, he was loved by the crowd and an encore of Boogie Chillun was superbly delivered. Hamilton Loomis was on the main stage but I’ve seen him in the UK now on such a regular basis and he was at The Biscuit last year that I’d felt I’d seen enough of him.

He was followed by Robert Belfour from Holly Springs who delivered a great set of his north Mississippi Hill Country blues with Poor Black Mattie his standout track.

On the main stage Reba Russell from Memphis and another Arkansas favourite belted out an amazing set of high energy blues. Her band were superb especially as they were playing with a pick up drummer as regular man Doug McMinn was taken ill during the morning. Reba’s anthem Heaven Came to Helena and Move To Mississippi the outstanding tracks. There are not many finer female blues singers at the moment in the USA or for that matter in the world. I have been working with Doug McMinn to try and get her to our shores. Maryport organisers please give me a ring – you won’t be disappointed.

It was probably a mistake to put John Hammond on the main stage. Despite his status in the blues world, he would have had a far better response on the more intimate acoustic stage. Nontheless he put on his usual accomplished show with his Robert Johnson tracks standing out.

Meanwhile on the 2nd stage Big Jack Johnson and his band put on great Juke Joint show featuring some of the tracks from his recent cd Katrina. His closing track featured him playing slide on his mandolin on Sweet Home Chicago.

Big Jack was straight back on stage when he joined Bob Rowell aka The Mississippi Spoonman and friends. Also featured on harp was Bob Corritore and on bass Carla Robinson in a set of slightly disjointed but quite entertaining covers.


On the main stage Anson Funderburgh and The Rockets gave their usual polished, smooth set which although popular, never raises the pulse too much. However, when harp player Lee McBee from Kansas City who made his name with Mike Morgan, entered the stage, things did improve.

However the audience response to the grand old man of the blues 96 year old Pinetop Perkins was nothing but sheer love and warmth. With Bob Margolin on guitar, Bob Stroger on bass and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums he was in good company and his piano playing was sound and true.

With the drenching we’d received the previous day taking its toll we stayed for just a few numbers of  final act, soul man Jackie Payne who was backed by the Steve Edmondson Band. They had stayed on after backing Calfornian harp player Mitch Kasmar who played superbly although his vocals didn’t show up too well.

The organisers came under criticism for making a charge this year … $10 for the 3 days!! Can you believe it – the cost of a pint each day…!

We would have paid 10 times that for the quality of the music. Congratulations to them for their hard work and endeavour.

One or two personal memories to add to Ken’s excellent account…

As usual our reception party was waiting for us … the gang from Jonesboro Arkansas.  A great gang led by brothers Neil and Phil, two absolutely crazy guys who like to party big time. (In real life Neil is a retired USAF Major and a qualified pilot whereas brother Phil is a Defence Attorney!!!)

Also present were the Chicago gang with mad Brad and the various collection of old hairy arsed hippies who greet us with big bear hugs. A nicer friendlier bunch it would be hard to meet who always make us feel so welcome.

It was great meeting up with the Darlo mob of Ian Ross, Pete Brown and Tony (medium large) Bowen. Tony had the somewhat innocent ability to reduce us to stitches at a moment. Also present was Li’l John Gaskins from Grimsby who having booked too late for an hotel room, slept in his car in a parking lot in downtown Helena!!! Brave or what!

From Darn Sarth we met up again with Blues in Britain founder Scott Duncan and his wife Sue and their lovely friends from Tulsa, Dave and his wife.

As Ken said we found a little gem with The Blue Tulip restaurant which was a little oasis in an otherwise gastronomic desert. Great steaks with turnip greens, black eyed peas, superb mash and a very flirty waitress who definitely had the hots for Big Ian W – it was she who nicknamed him “Schnookie”!!

Whilst we’re on that matter Ken has declined to mention that he has now acquired a new nickname! He will furthermore be known as “Needy shrill” Ken Peace.

The “Needy” part stems from our visit to the Highway 61 coffee house in Vicksburg when a rather flirtatious local of shall we say, more mature years, thought Ken was a needy sort of person!! I can’t remember which harp player had a shrill tone but I think it was more than one over the week.

As to Paul’s nickname Punmeister- it was fairly obvious but I consider it hurtful for the others to liken myself to a giant condom just because I had the foresight to buy a big white full length poncho – Prophylactic Pete indeed!!

As regards the music – high points were probably Michael Burks both at the festival and at Pinetop Perkins homecoming gig on the Sunday when he played the most beautiful blues guitar imaginable , Reba Russell and Lucious Spiller and I sincerely hope that we will see them in this country.. big festival organisers please take note.

The places we visited were marvellous. Memphis is not very inspiring but on day 2 we drove to Holly Springs and after the visit to Aikei Pros we called into a real out of the past café for coffee and cake. As we entered everyone paused and looked at us. Remember the scene in Mississippi Burning! The local marshall walked in saying “how y’all doing” – great.

Bentonia was a blast from the past too and Jackson was a beautiful city with a huge memorial to the wives and mothers of The Confederacy.

Day 3 in Indianola was interesting. Tom from the Gin Mill immediately remembered us and proceded to show me his new dental implants that we’d talked about last year. The Norweigan country band were actually very good indeed – great musicianship and harmonies.

Day 4. Vicksburg was a beautiful place high on a brow overlooking the Mississippi river. Scene of a bloody battle during the American Civil War, we passed a cemetery with thousands of graves laid out much like the Normandy cemeteries. Worth revisiting one day.

On from Vicksburg we stopped at Rolling Fork the small town which was the birthplace of Muddy Waters. After calling at the excellent blues museum in Leland we drove through the quite rough part of Greenville, a definite no go area. We then were “goin’ down to Rosedale” where we had the magnificent hot tamales at the White Front Café. A definite return on another date.

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Rosedale is interesting as there are two or three run down juke joints including Bugs Place where Robert Johnson was reputed to have played on occasions.

Finally up to Clarksdale which is a very welcoming place with so much going on for the blues lover with regular live music. We seemed to overcome the trauma of the temperance bar in Jackson by having found an excellent Mexican restaurant with superb margueritas which has become a last night regular haunt. You never know who might be there – it was Bob Margolin this time.

A feature of the place is that we get serenaded by the Mexican waiters at the end of the night and in turn we have to respond. I have to say that Needy Shrill’s attempt at On Ilkley Moor Baht’at followed by the Darlo boys Blaydon Races were pretty feeble in comparison to Punmeister’s and my wonderful rendition of Sospan Fach. Two things the Welsh can do is sing and beat England at rugby!

The evening and the week concluded with the Mexican’s being so impressed with our vocalisation (even Margolin clapped!) that free  T shirts were given to us as momentos – it was then that after checking on our sizes that the wonderful Tony from Darlo said “Have you got a medium large one!”

A great ending to a great week – bring on next year.



October 24th, 2009 at 22:31
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Great stuuf, Ken and Pete. Your reviews have given us all a terrific insight into the festival and the surrounding amenities. Looking forward to seeing the three recommended acts over here before too long.



October 25th, 2009 at 09:06
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Great review with some wonderful pictures, It’s nice to hear that Hubert ( my hero ) is in fine fettle, long may it continue, thanks for sharing !!