Review – 25th Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival

Posted on: Sunday, Oct 31, 2010

THE 25th ARKANSAS BLUES & HERITAGE FESTIVAL, HELENA, ARKANSAS – OCT  7th,8th,9th 2010

October 7th started with the various winners from the different affiliated competitions. Of mention was an excellent 5 piece band from N.E. Texas called Diddley Squat with guitarist Jim Cobb playing in a lovely T Bone Walker style.

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Next on the Sonny Boy Williamson stage was the winner of the 2010 International Blues Challenge Grady Champion who whipped up the audience on a couple of walkabouts. He possesses quite a rasping voice and whilst not the best of harp players he really goes down a storm backed by a very tight band. Stand out tracks was Smile At Me .

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He was followed by 78 year old native Arkansan Willie Cobbs and his band. He performed superbly on vocals and harp and of course performed You Don’t Love Me, his classic composition.

Sterling Billingsley is President of The Sonny Boy Blues Society so I suppose it does allow him the privilege of playing the main stage. He gave a good steady performance but the highlight was when he was joined on harp by Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms on vocals and harp on Sonny Boy’s Help Me.

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The harp theme continued with James Harman backed by a superb band including guest guitarist Anson Funderburgh and Austrian pianist Christian Dozzler in a superb set of rocking swing blues.

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Festival favourite Reba Russell from Memphis took over from where she left off last year. A vocalist with few peers she is backed by an incredibly tight band including the precocious young Josh Roberts on guitar. She blasted through her festival anthem, When Heaven Came to Helena and a superb version of Bessie Smith’s Send Me to the Electric Chair.

Next up was Paul Thorn from Tupelo who certainly is not a blues man but more a country rock singer in the John Hiatt style. He nonetheless gave a very enjoyable set and is very popular indeed with the locals.

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Before headliner B.B. King and his band took to the stage he was presented with the Sonny Boy Award for services to the blues and then to the great surprise of all present, a giant banner was carried on stage and at the given moment revealed the legend “The Biscuit is back – thank you Bill Sagan and Wolfgang’s Vault.” The news that the original title had been acquired by Bill Sagan was greeted with wild joy both on and off the stage and next year’s event will once again be known as The King Biscuit Festival.

BB King then delivered a majestic performance as befitting the special occasion, playing Lucille beautifully. The set covered all his classics with his voice as strong as ever.

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The next day arrived with the bizarre and sad news that both of the opening acts Sherrie Williams and Big Jack Johnson had suffered heart attacks on the previous evening thus resulting in the promotion of Daddy Mack Orr from Memphis and the appearance of Big Jim, son of Big Jack and his band The Cornlickers. Both bands performed superbly well with Daddy Mack’s Big Recession Blues a stand out.

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From Texas, Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King are firm favourites with Joe’s excellent guitar and Bnois King’s soulful vocals and guitar delivering a set of great rocking blues especially Sometimes I wonder Where You Are.

They were then followed by country rock band The Kentucky Headhunters.  Massively popular with the locals, they really raised the tempo with their loud rocking set.

On the second day, the second stage the Lockwood/ Stackhouse comes into play and features acoustic acts early on with electric acts later. Street performers also feature in Cherry Street which runs behind the main stage and they are always of very high quality with Terry Harmonica Bean, Little Jimmy Reed and one man band Richard Johnstone standing out.

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Eden Brent from Greenville Mississippi is a stunning pianist and sings in a fun, raunchy style and is making a name on the various Blues Cruises. She gathered a big crowd on the 2nd stage having followed on from the evergreen Johnny Billington.

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Back on the main stage  the Willie “Big Eyes” Smith Band took the stage. Willie plays harp in his band and after a few numbers introduced a rather frail Hubert Sumlin who announced that “I’m not feeling my best but I feel alright”. Hubert had an accompanying oxygen  pack and played with great passion on tracks like Little Red Rooster but at the end of a short set was visibly breathless.

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I stayed at the main stage to catch yet another brilliant set from Michael Burks. Surely this man is at the top of the next tier of American blues guitarists. Whilst sometimes on the rockier side, when he plays the blues he has a certain Albert King quality about him.

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Marcia Ball then gave her usual top drawer set of great piano blues, rocking away into the evening before I moved over to the second stage to see the wonderful Mojo Buford and his excellent pick up band from Atlanta. With great guitar from Dexter Allen, Mojo was joined for the set by his close friend R.J. Mischo on 2nd harp. They boogied together through the whole set culminating unsurprisingly with Got My Mojo Working.

Completing the night on the main stage was a good dose of N’Awlins with Dr John really getting into the groove with all his classics and of course Iko Iko.

A new concept on the final day was the introduction of three more stages The Emerging Artist Stage, The Gospel Stage and The Bit -O – Blues Stage but with so much music and teperatures of 95 degrees, I decided to stick to the 2 main stages.

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First on the main stage was the soulful blues of Preston Shannon from Memphis with his version of Purple Rain a stand out followed by a powerful show of hard rocking blues from Larry McCray whom I discovered was Michael Burks’ cousin.

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On the second stage I enjoyed a lovely set of raw Bentonia  acoustic guitar blues from Jimmy “Duck” Holmes before a superb performance from Austin “Walking Cane” from Cleveland, a new name to me. He mesmerised the audience with his National guitar and his superb deep voice which certainly had a Blind Willie Johnson texture. In a great set of covers and self penned tracks backed by Earnest “Guitar ” Roy on drums, his best track was Death of a Blues Singer  from the album of that name.

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Back to the main stage to see Bobby Parker playing as well as ever on Watch Your Step in a great set before the wonderful man of the blues, Pinetop Perkins, now 97 years old went through his short set of classics including Down in Mississippi and They Call Me Pinetop Perkins aided by Bob Margolin.

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Lonnie Shields was next up on the packed second stage and he got everyone dancing during a brilliant set of rocking blues including a long walkabout on The Thrill Is Gone before I made my last visit back to the main stage for the penultimate act, The Charlie Musselwhite Band. With a superb young guitarist Matthew Stubbs, Charlie put on a great show with You Know It Ain’t Right given a fast tempo shuffle treatment showcasing Charlie’s great harp and Matthew’s guitar.

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Taj Mahal came on stage with just a bass and drum backing and although he started slowly, his set gradually gained momentum to give a superb ending to the festival with his versions of Poor Boy, I’m Going Fishing and Make a Strong Man Holla, Make a Weak Man Cry outstanding.

So came to an end an amazing three days of music and I still wasn’t able to catch many great musicians and performers. The festival is run and organised by a dedicated band of enthusiasts, helpers and volunteers and immense credit must go the lovely friendly people of Helena and I look forward to next year and the official return of The King Biscuit.

Pete Evans

All pictures by Pete Evans – uploaded and used with permission.



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Lionel

November 4th, 2010 at 16:09
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Great review Pete. Great line-up – nearly as good as Carlisle!