Review: The 28th King Biscuit Blues Festival, Helena, Arkansas – October 10/11/12
Posted on: Friday, Dec 27, 2013
Back in October of this year, Pete Evans, Paul Taylor, Paul Farmer and Ken Peace made their annual blues visit to the USA; here’s Pete’s excellent review, with his own fine photographs.
The festival kicked off with superb hot weather and the first day appeared busier than usual. The first set we caught was the tail end of International Blues Challenge winner Selwyn Birchwood. A lovely guitarist with a great future, he has already attracted the attention of a major label.
Sterling Billingsley a regular at the festival boasted a new band line-up which included Doug McMinn on drums and Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms on keyboard and harp. They delivered a superb tight set with “Ain’t No Sunshine” being the stand out track.
It’s not unusual for the festival to include a couple of deep South country rock ‘n’ roll acts and Travis Wammack from Memphis was next up. He was band leader for Little Richard for many years and let rip with “Tear It Up” and the great soulful blues of “Let Me Tell You About My Girl”.
Regular visitor to the UK, Hamilton Loomis, was next up and he gave his usual polished show which also had him climbing up the stage girders to play one of the guitars advertising the main beer sponsor . . . slightly gimmicky but it pleased the masses!
It was a delight to hear the guitarist who can master all styles – Walter “Wolfman” Washington. Backed by a superbly tight band with a crack brass section his set had it all. Particularly good though was his leaning towards his native New Orleans music.
It was guitarist’s heaven as next on stage was another Louisiana giant Sonny Landreth. Surely the master of the slide he amazed the crowd with his fretwork. Stand out tracks were “Congo Square” and his dedication to the Katrina victims “Blue Tarp Blues”.
Only one word can describe the set from headliner Marcia Ball and her brilliant band – perfection.
Louisiana drenched blues and rock ‘n’roll flowed from her keyboard and really fired up the crowd It’s hard to pick stand out tracks, however the wonderful “Louisiana 1927” made a big impression featuring a superb sax solo from Thad Scott.
Friday kicked off with two blues-rock outfits Jack Rowell Jr and the Bart Walker Band, one of the Ruf Records stable of blues rockers. Both were very competent but no different to a lot of similar outfits from this side of the water, but the quality of Reba Russell and her band from Memphis really did shine through as the next act.
She is rightly considered the blues queen of the region and with her super band, she scorched through some great rockers like “Heaven Came To Helena” and then mellowed down to the beautiful “My Blues Angel” dedicated to late festival stalwart Ray Galloway. This track featured the amazing talents of Josh Roberts on guitar. Many people feel that this young man is a finer talent than Bonamassa and Trucks so it was with sadness we learnt that Reba was folding the band but with happiness that one of the reasons was to enable Josh to pursue his own career.
The second stage had opened but sadly the veteran CeDell Davis didn’t arrive in time for his slot so a wander around the streets enabled us to see a fine set of covers from Li’l Jimmy Reed and an equally good raw set of North Mississippi blues from Vince Cheney at the Delta Cultural Centre.
Staying at the Centre though enabled us to see the amazing prodigious talent of the young Peterson Brothers from Texas. Glenn 17 on lead and Alex 14 on bass are building up a huge following in home city Austin and 3rd October (Stevie Ray’s birthday) is now known as Peterson Brother’s Day. Stand out tracks in a blistering set of outstanding musicianship were “Don’t You Lie to Me” and “Got to Go”. Blues in the USA has a solid future with these lads – watch their name.
We caught the end of Sharrie Williams before Andy T and Nick Nixon took the main stage. Nick is a veteran of the Nashville scene and his smooth soulful voice featured for years in the vocal band The New Imperials. With Andy T on guitar along with Anson Funderburgh and a great brass section they played songs from new CD “Drink, Drank, Drunk” gaining great applause.
Texan Anson Funderburgh then stayed on stage to be joined by his own band, The Rockets. He has played at all 28 King Biscuit Festivals and is a beautiful, effortless guitarist and with his crack band featuring Dana Robbins on sax and guest vocalist Big Joe Maher, they delivered a polished set with “You Can’t Keep a Big Man Down” the stand out track.
Paul Thorn from Tupelo was making his fourth successive appearance at the festival and from being virtually unknown outside the southern country rock circuit he is now a very firm favourite with all the blues fans. His lively fun filled set features a superb band with guitarist Bill Hinds catching the eye and songs like “Pimps and Preachers” are firm favourites.
It was a surprise to find that headliner Robert Cray hadn’t appeared at the festival before. His set was professional and well received but didn’t really have the oomph that the festival usually expects. Having said that, his delivery of the classics “Phone Booth”, “Poor Johnny” and “Don’t You Even Care” was superb.
The final day started with Earnest “Guitar” Roy and The Clarksdale Rockets on the main stage. With a great brass section and guest Billy Branch on harp they blasted through a great set of down home blues.
A visit to the Delta Cultural Centre saw the wonderful Willie Cobbs who was honoured with the Sonny Boy Blues Society for his services to blues. Backed by a young white band he laughed and encouraged them along with his classic “You Don’t Love Me” the perfect end to a great set.
Next up on the main stage was Memphis stalwart guitarist Don McMinn. He has played with everyone in the major blues league and can also count a stint as one of John Mayall’s guitarists. Uniquely he not only had his sons Doug on drums and Rome on bass, and his daughter Lorina on vocals but also his 14 year old grandson Michael on harp. And how well did young Michael play. He would have made his old tutor Mojo Buford very proud.
Drummer Kenny Smith, son of the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith had ‘Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin on guitar and Bob Stroger on bass and these Chicago legends belted out pure class. Joined by Matthew Skoller on harp, the top number was “Look On Yonders Wall”.
On the second stage David Kimbrough , son of Junior Kimbrough, and his band gave us a good dose of North Mississippi hill country blues with “I’ve Got The Dog In Me” played on a lap steel dulcimer the top track. A bonus was when he was joined on stage by his gorgeous little girl on maracas.
Back on Cherry Street, with a famous surname from the past, Richard Pryor, son of Snooky, delivered a great set on harp, guitar and kick drum with “You Gotta Move” a stand out.
Arkansas son Larry McCray, now a regular visitor to the UK, was on his home patch and was duly greeted with real warmth. His passionate set included the covers “Sugar Coated Love” and “Love the One You’re With” but it was his final track “Soul Shine” dedicated to his late cousin Michael Burks that really brought the house down. Very moving indeed.
The final hours of the festival were spent at the second stage starting with “Help Me” the best of a great set from harp man Blind Mississippi Morris followed by one of the best sets of the whole three days from Joe Louis Walker. He completely captivated the audience and was back to his great early days with “Too Drunk To Drive” – a classic.
He was followed by the evergreen Bobby Rush with his full review. Now nearing 80 years old, he has the energy of someone half his years and although the sexism, corniness and double entendre is the same as ever, his set was wonderful and he had the audience eating out of his hands.
Finally a quick dash was made back to the main stage to see the last of Gregg Allman. We’d seen the opening part of his set which featured “Statesboro’ Blues” and were able to catch some of his other Allman Brothers classics including “Whipping Post”. He received a great reception from his American fans of a certain age who remember how important the band had been in American rock history.
Once again the festival was a massive success and all praise must be heaped on the lovely friendly organisers and volunteers of Helena who work so hard to make the festival such an amazing event. Bring on 2014.
The day after the festival is spent in Clarksdale, Mississippi with Roger Stolle’s Cathead Mini Festival taking place in the street outside his store in the morning. We caught the talented Lucious Spiller and the amazing new discovery , 81 years old Leo “Bud” Welch who had until recently been playing and singing gospel music in his church. He could be the last of the old traditional Delta blues musicians and the good news is that a tour is already being planned to bring him to the UK next year.
Finally, a trip to Hopson’s Plantation in the afternoon sees a great post Biscuit jam in memory of Pinetop Perkins who lived and worked at Hopson’s many years ago in the cotton fields. Many of the musicians from the Biscuit attend and a superb time is had by all. Highlight though for us was a blistering set from North Mississippi star Kenny Brown and his band which featured Bill Abel on second guitar. A great end to a great four days of brilliant music.
Words and pictures: PETE EVANS