Tuesday, October 02, 2007

It’s Biscuit time in Helena

The Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival in downtown Helena — formerly the King Biscuit Blues Festival, although it’s still the Biscuit for most fans and it’s still free — will kick off next Thursday with several strong acts and will continue through next Saturday with plenty more good music, and there’s still lots more across the river the following afternoon in downtown Clarksdale, Miss.

If you were thinking about going down to Helena for just a few hours on Saturday, consider making it a long weekend, but take your camper or tent with you since the motels in the area are probably sold out.

The festival changed its name a couple of years ago, after a New York outfit bought the rights to the King Biscuit logo and threatened to hold a competing festival in Memphis (that hasn’t happened yet). But the Helena festival is still going strong, drawing thousands of visitors from all over the world. (See www.bluesandheritage.com for a complete listing.)

The musicians at this year’s festival may not be household names — the original blues giants are mostly gone, including Arkansas native Robert Lockwood Junior, who performed at King Biscuit just about every year and passed away last November at the age of 91 — but 94-year-old Pinetop Perkins is scheduled to appear Friday, and there will still be plenty of good music by young and old artists, who will keep the blues alive for at least a couple of generations.

The festival opens with several winners of blues competitions, followed by blues elder statesman and educator Sterling Billingsley of Mississippi and then gospel-blues singer Diunne Greenleaf of Houston.

Wayne Baker Brooks of Chicago, son of blues great Lonnie Brooks, follows Greenleaf. Mississippi blues-soul legend Bobby Rush performs with Blinddog Smokin’ and the evening ends with the Lee Boys, a sacred-steel band from Miami.

Friday’s festivities start early in the afternoon with two important Mississippi Delta bluesmen, Lil’ Dave Thompson and drummer Sam Carr, the son of famed bluesman Robert Nighthawk, both originally from Helena, where Nighthawk is buried. (Carr lives across the river in Dundee, Miss.)

Smokin’ Joe Kubek of Dallas comes on with Bnois King of Louisiana, combining Kubek’s heavy guitar playing with King’s jazz guitar and vocals.

Friday evening, it’s Pinetop Perkins, a festival favorite, with his sidekick Bob Margolin, who both played in Muddy Waters’ band.

Up next will be a great blues showman, Chicagoan Lil’ Ed Williams and his Blues Imperials. Wearing a fez, he evokes the spirit of his uncle, the late great J.B. Hutto.

Sherman Robertson of Louisiana will add a touch of Cajun music to the festivities, followed by three incendiary guitar players, North Little Rock’s own Michael Burks, who will be joined by Larry McCray and Carl Weathersby.

That’s Friday’s impressive lineup on the main stage, but nearby on the Houston Stackhouse acoustic stage, don’t miss Louisiana wizard Eugene (Hideaway) Bridges and Mississippi bluesmen Bill Abel, Cadillac John and Jimmy (Duck) Holmes.
Bridges also appears at noon Saturday on the main stage, followed by Alabama bluesman Willie King and Terry Evans from Los Angeles.

There’s plenty more on Saturday:

Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets (without the late, great Sam Myers), Robert Lockwood Junior Band (without Robert). Then it’s 70ish Hubert Sumlin (Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist) and Helena native Willie (Big Eyes) Smith (Muddy Waters’ drummer). Cajun bluesman Kenny Neal is next, followed by the Mannish Boys from Texas.

Try the gumbo on Cherry Street between the acts.

On Sunday afternoon, you might cross the river to downtown Clarksdale, where several musicians will perform in front of Cat Head music store, including Fat Possum recording artists Robert Belfour and T-Model Ford. Across the tracks at the train depot (where Muddy Waters caught a train to Chicago 65 years ago), it will be the amazing Rooster Blues artist Robert Bilbo Walker.

Then you might make it over the nearby Hopson Plantation, where several musicians will honor Pinetop. The nonagenarian keyboardist might or might not play, because his mother warned him about playing the blues on Sunday, but he might play a couple of bars if his mother looks down at him from heaven and tells him it’s OK.

It’s great music, and it’s all free, except for the Hopson program (where they serve some of the best barbecue in the Delta), but try to tip the musicians whenever you can. They’re not rich. That’s why they call it the blues.