Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Blues in Helena: Singin' In The Rain


(Originally posted: Nov. 9, 2004)

Blues fans from all over the world headed for Helena last weekend for the King Biscuit Blues Festival and stuck it out despite the rain.

It rained almost the entire weekend, and the temperature kept falling, but the show went on anyway. So if you had an umbrella and/or plastic ponchos and hats, you could sit and watch dozens of musicians from one end of downtown Helena to the other.

Thousands of die-hard blues fans from as far away as Japan who had booked motel rooms months ago showed up, but just as many people who live within driving distance who had planned to attend decided not to make it this year because of the lousy weather.

It has rained the last three years, but not as much as last weekend. Festival organizers took a huge loss in vendor sales. Why not move the festival from the second weekend in October to the first weekend? It will be warmer and maybe the rain might stay away for a few years.

Corey Harris was the first big name to play on Thursday, Oct. 7, and although it was a cool evening, at least it didn't rain yet. Harris, whose African-influenced blues is not to everyone's taste, is a young award-winning musician whose appearance added a real touch of class to the festival.

It was still dry early next afternoon when singer-guitarist Dave Riley and drummer Sam Carr (a native of Marvell) put on a terrific performance, but when soul singer Toni Lynn Washington followed them, the rain started, and it wouldn't let up all weekend.

Fans could go inside one of the converted storefronts that now serve as the Delta Heritage Center on Cherry Street. CeDell Davis, a Helena native, and John Weston from Brinkley each played for an hour inside the Miller Hotel (just another storefront, really) and were given lifetime achievement awards.

Davis was really in the groove and never played better while making passes at the ladies. Earlier, another Marvell native, Robert Lockwood, Jr., the octogenarian bluesman (Robert Johnson taught him how to play the guitar back in the 1930s) did a live radio interview at noon with Sonny (Sunshine) Payne, the longtime host of KFFA's "King Biscuit Time," but the mild-mannered Lockwood could get in only a couple of words and wasn't asked to play his guitar as he did 60 years ago just across the street at KFFA's original studios.

Payne had several other guests, including a priest and a teenager, who did play the guitar. When they were finished, Lockwood seemed ready to play, too, but Payne kept talking instead.

Lockwood, one of the original King Biscuit Boys who played on KFFA back in the 1940s, finally said, "Sonny, you talk too much." That was the end of the interview. What a missed opportunity for the 50 or so fans who had crammed into the Delta Heritage Center to hear Lockwood play and reminisce about the good old days.

The next day, Lockwood put on a great show on the main stage, as he has just about every year since 1986, when the King Biscuit Blues Festival started.

Despite the downpour, we heard Robert Belfour at the smaller Houston Stackhouse-Robert Lock-wood Heritage Stage. He's an authentic bluesman and even looks the part: He was the walking musician between breaks on Martin Scorsese's blues series on PBS.

We had hoped to catch several more musicians on the small stage, but the rain was too much. We missed a couple of Piedmont blues musicians who record on the Musicmaker label, which turns all of its profits over to its artists.

Beverly (Guitar) Watkins and Cootie Stark are among two of the better-known musicians on the Musicmaker label. As luck would have it, the next day we ran into Stark, a blind bluesman from North Carolina, who was sitting alone in a car outside a record shop in Clarksdale, Miss.

He autographed our copy of "Sugarman," one of his Music-maker CDs, after we got in the car with him. Actually, he put an X on it.

We asked him if he would sing a song for us, and he wound up singing three beautiful spirituals acappella, among them "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" and "Servant, Rest a While."

When he finished, he said, "It was terrible when they took God out of the schools."

We thanked him for sharing his talent with us, and he told us how he learned to play the guitar when he was a child in Abbeyville, S.C.

His latest CD is called "Raw Sugar" with Taj Mahal, a big supporter of the Musicmaker Relief Foundation.

Timothy Duffy is the group's president, and he looked dejected in the rain at Helena, where organizers wouldn't let him put up a booth because he supposedly competes with another blues charity. Go figure.

You can join the Musicmaker Relief Foundation by logging on to musicmaker.org.

The festival didn't end for us until Sunday afternoon, when we headed for Hopson's Commissary in Clarksdale, where 91-year-old Pinetop Perkins, another King Biscuit radio performer from the 1940s and former Muddy Waters piano player, put on a show with a band that included two others from Muddy's band: Bob Margolin and Calvin (Fuzz) Jones.

Although the crowd was sometimes unruly, especially after the food ran out, the music was fine and it was dry inside.


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