Review by Pete Evans & John Taylor: The 2012 King Biscuit Festival – Helena, Arkansas – 4th-6th October, 2012
Posted on: Thursday, Jan 3, 2013
The weather was glorious on the opening day of what is surely the finest blues festival in the world. President of the Sonny Boy Blues Society Stirling Billingsley gave his usual solid set before the excellent Jumpin’ Johnny Sansome from New Orleans took the stage by storm. Delivering great harp and vocals, the band ripped through a set of originals until he dedicated Sonny Boy’s “Keep it to Yourself” to sadly missed Helena native, Levon Helm.
One of the day’s highlights was the superb Kenny Neal with his family featuring Fredrick and Darnell and surprise guest, young nephew Tyree Neal who delivered impressive guitar and vocal skill on “Born Under A Bad Sign”. The Louisiana theme continued with a great set of zydeco from Wayne Toups on accordion and his band ZydeCajun, before we were treated to a wonderful set of great soulful vocals from Cyril Neville.
Headline act on Day One was the incomparable Bobby Rush. With his full band (including the marvellous Dexter Gordon as one of the four guitarists) the energetic 79 year old defied the years, delivering not only fine music but also great (if slightly sexist) entertainment. The crowd loved it.
The second day proceedings were kicked off by the superb Earnest “Guitar” Roy from Clarksdale powering through his set of classic blues and featuring ex Michael Burks drummer Chuck ‘Popcorn’ Loudon. Next up was James “Nick” Nixon, the soulful blues singer from Nashville. A long time member of The New Imperials he was backed by Andy T and his band with the brilliant Anson Funderburgh on guitar. Stand out track was a superb version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You”.
On the second stage, The Lockwood Stage, Austin “Walkin’ Cane” impressed with his dedication to Robert Johnson “Murder of a Blues Singer” whilst on the main stage, tall stunning blonde Tullie Brae was backed by some fine musicians in her band, The Medicine Man Revue, delivering high octane rocking blues vocals.
Billy Gibson from Memphis blew some great harp in the Miller Theatre whilst on the street there was a fine set from the father-daughter duo of Tyrannosaurus Chicken and an incredibly entertaining set from Watermelon Slim showing the calibre of artist the festival attracts off the main stages.
However, the highlight of the festival was without a doubt Ruthie Foster. This lovely diminutive singer guitarist from Texas possesses one of the finest voices in modern blues. Performing songs from her new release “Let It Burn” she received thunderous applause for her gospel influenced “Titanic” sung a cappella with thousands of fans swaying, clapping and humming forming a huge gospel choir. A memorable moment. Her refreshing version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was superb as was her title track of her 2002 CD “Runaway Soul”. Let’s hope we can see her in the UK in the future.
Anson Funderburgh has to be one of the slickest guitarists in the USA and the smooth Texas swing of his band The Rockets was superbly complemented by his guest Kim Wilson who proved why he is one of the greatest harp players in the world.
They were followed by Paul Thorn and his band – “One of the best kept secrets in music ” according to Kris Kristofferson. From Tupelo, he has a massive following in the Southern states and is essentially a country rock band. His set was musically brilliant and incredibly entertaining . His strengths lie in his song writing displayed in such songs as “Pimps And Preachers”.
Astonishingly, the temperature plummeted 20 degrees in around five minutes as an Arctic front hit the state causing many to leave. We therefore ended up missing Vasti Jackson and Carl Weathersby and also headliner Taj Mahal as we retreated from the heavy rain.
The final day was cold and wet and caused some of the fringe stages to close down. Samantha Fish was everything one would expect from Thomas Ruf’s latest attempts at bringing young, attractive blues rock guitarists to the masses. She could play and sing but was really not a lot different to all his other young guitarists.
Next up was some real blues with Kenny Smith taking over the mantle of his late father Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. With him was Bob Margolin on guitar, Bob Stroger on bass and Ann Rabson of Saffire, The Uppity Blues Women on keyboard. A great set was a fitting tribute to Chicago blues.
In The Miller Theatre we caught The Peterson Brothers, two amazingly talented youngsters from Texas. Glenn on guitar is 15 and his brother Alex on bass is 13 and helping to mentor them is Chuck “Popcorn” Loudon who was on drums. Showing superb skill and maturity they wowed the audience proving that the blues is very much alive in young African Americans.
We caught snatches of the ‘Queen of Memphis blues’ and firm festival favourite Reba Russell with her superb band and also a little of The Cate Brothers who were awarded the Sonny Boy Award for services to the blues. During short breaks in the rain, we also saw some of the acts from the second stage and were impressed with the great sax playing of Helena native Phillip Stackhouse (grandson of legendary Houston Stackhouse) and also Fruteland Jackson who never fails to impress with his great acoustic playing and singing.
On the main stage, Randall Bramblett on keys and his band were not really a blues band but nontheless served a superb set of country influenced music.
On the Rising Biscuit stage, all the acts were cancelled except fortuitously the debut appearance by British band Backbone who were playing with superb Tulsa harp player David Berntson, and gave a superb account of themselves.
We were able to catch a superb soul blues set on the second stage from EB Davis. Arkansas native but now resident in Germany, he had his regular Europe band with him with Jay Bailey on guitar and the wonderful Nina Davis on keyboards.
The final act for us was the wonderful James Cotton. Now 77 years old, this legend from the Muddy Waters band still plays absolutely brilliantly. Backed by a top notch band he introduced Darrell Nulisch on vocals who, sitting next to Cotton, performed superbly on “Rocket 88” and “Whose Loving You Tonight”. A real treat.
Unfortunately, we cannot report on headliner Bonnie Raitt as we all decided to give her a miss. We had been made to agree to some quite draconian measures regarding photography and as more requests and apparent issues became known to us, we decided that we’d head back to Clarksdale instead. This was after all a blues festival in the deep south.
It had been a wonderful festival yet again and as ever, was superbly organised by the lovely friendly people of Helena. It was a shame that due to the weather we had missed some acts that we had wanted to see – but there is always next year. We’ll be there, why not come and join us.
Pete Evans and John Taylor
(Pictures by Pete Evans)