Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Great Helena Blues Festival

The King Biscuit Blues Festival is no more: A New York outfit claims it bought the name decades ago for a syndicated radio show, apparently under the impression King Biscuit is some kind of flower.

But they couldn't kill Arkansas' musical gift to the world. The festival came back with a roar October 6-8 - renamed the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival - despite the wind and cold. (If they can rename the 19-year-old festival, can't they move it up just one week, when the weather's usually still warm? Last year's festival, alas, was a washout).

But when the weather is half-decent, the Helena festival can claim title as the most important blues festival in the world.

This is a festival that showcases native sons like 88-year-old guitar genius Robert Junior Lockwood (who learned from Delta blues legend Robert Johnson); 80-year-old drum wizard Sam Carr (whose father Robert Nighthawk was one of the all-time great slide-guitar players); 60-year-old deep soul-blues singer Eb Davis (who, in our estimation, had the best voice at the festival), and the 40-something Lonnie Shields, who helped kick off the festival Thursday before last, alongside Big Jack Johnson, another blues great from Clarksdale, Miss., who, as far as we could tell, was never introduced to the audience.

Most of these musicians had played at the first King Biscuit Festival in 1986 and have returned often. Lockwood hasn't missed a year, although this was Shields' first appearance in five years.

Shields is a native of Helena and so is Carr, while Lockwood was born up the road in Turkey Scratch, and they have an unmistakable Arkansas sound that seldom gets recognition in most blues circles.

They're gifted musicians whose records are a must for all blues fans. Lockwood's "Steady Rollin' Man" (Delmark) is a classic and builds the case for Lockwood as America's greatest guitar player.

For many years, Carr and Jackson teamed up with the late Frank Frost (another Arkansas native), who performed as the Jelly Roll Kings on such great records as "Rockin' the Juke Joint Down" (Earwig) and "Off Yonder Wall" (Fat Possum). Shields, who often played with the Jelly Roll Kings and now lives in Philadelphia, is in fine form on two Rooster CDs, "Midnight Delight" and "Portrait."

Last weekend's big surprise was hearing Eb Davis, a native of Elaine, which is near Helena, who now lives in Berlin. He's a great soul-blues singer who reminds you of Jimmy McCracklin of Pine Bluff and Jimmy Witherspoon of Gurdon (Clark County). Davis has a great stage presence and once filled in for the Drifters while they traveled in Europe, which is why he's now settled in Germany. He comes home every once in a while, and till he does, listen to his CDs.

We've enjoyed his "Wanna Talk About You" (Furniture Records) with Eugene (Hideaway) Bridges and "Fool for the Ladies" with Big Jay McNelly (Wonder-land Records). Wonderful music. Davis is one of the best and must not be missed if he returns here again.

But the three-day blues bash featured several legends besides the above mentioned Arkansans: David Honeyboy Edwards, who is 90, started playing in Arkansas back in the 1930s and was with Robert Johnson when he was poisoned in 1938 near Greenwood, Miss., not far from where Edwards was born in 1915. Last Saturday night, Edwards sang a soulful ÒWest Helena BluesÓ after he received a lifetime achievement award from the blues festival.

You can hear him play "West Helena Blues" on his "White Windows" Evidence CD and elsewhere. Also check out his Library of Congress recordings from 1942, as well as his Smithsonian recordings, "Delta Bluesman." We also enjoyed hearing the great Bobby Blue Bland and Henry Gray, who was HowlinÕ WolfÕs pianist and who still plays great swamp blues.

The Delta harp player Big George Brock, who now lives in St. Louis, made several appearances in the area during the weekend, winning new fans wherever he went. Check out his "Club Caravan" CD from Cat Head.

He's a class act.

It is with sadness that we note that the great Sam Myers, once a powerful blues shouter, is battling throat cancer and can no longer sing, although he said a few words to his fans in a scratchy voice and briefly played his harmonica with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, his old band mates.


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