(Deb Finney is the host of KABF's Blues House Party every Friday from 3 to 5 PM.)
My first trip to the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, AR was in 1987. It was a pilgrimage, of sorts. Having lost my younger brother, Billy, in a tragic accident earlier in the year a group of us headed to the Biscuit because he wanted to go there. We were a rag tag bunch of college kids and grown ups (my girlfriends and I) but we were all sitting on the levee jamming on the blues music and sunshine that day.
Having been to the Biscuit many times since then, I know the ins and outs of the festival. Sure, I did the Tent City thing; been there, done that. Having found a new location to “camp”, if you call in a nice camper with a/c, water and electricity camping that is, we are a few short blocks from the festival and we have amenities (something that is a lot more important to me these days).
The festival changed things up a bit this year and added an event on Wednesday night. They called it Warm Up Wednesday. Previously, it was home to the Michael Burks Memorial Jam and folks would show up and jam on Wednesday night. This year they added the First Annual Bobby Rush Slim Chicken’s Pickin’ Party featuring Bobby Rush and friends at 8 p.m. They moved the Michael Burks jam up to 3pm to 7pm. Some thought that would hurt the jam but I have to say there were more people there on Wednesday afternoon at the jam than I have ever seen at the jam on Wednesday nights. Bobby Rush, a Biscuit favorite, has been a centerpiece of the festival since it began. The event was also a cd release party for Bobby’s new cd Porcupine Meat on Rounder Records.
There was a meet and greet with Bobby earlier in the afternoon at Southbound Pizza (which became our regular “get out of the heat and get something to eat” joint). We kicked around back stage visiting with folks and finally got a chance to sit down and chat with Bobby a bit. Chuck and I visited with Bobby and got caught up on everything. It is always a great time to sit down with Bobby and chat a bit. We promised to stick around for the show and we did. Bobby put on his usual entertaining show, complete with the “girls” who can move their bodies in ways one could never even imagine. We ran into Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone backstage, having just seen him in Vegas at the Big Blues Bender, and chatted with him a bit. He was guesting with Bobby a little later. Bobby wowed the crowd and had a grand time. After the show we wandered over to the Wild Hog Saloon to catch up with friends and listen to the jam there. Some of the folks from Birthright Blues Band out of Sulphur Springs, TX were there, along with Tommy Gatlin and Quicksand Martin. Heather Crosse showed up and jammed a bit. It was the perfect start to the King Biscuit this year.
Thursday was a devilishly hot day. I have to admit that the heat and campsite visitors kept me close to the campsite most of the afternoon but we finally made it down in time to see some of Reba Russell’s fine set on the Main Stage. He also caught some of Eric Gales blistering set and from the crowd reaction, it was very well received. The headliners were Sonny Landreth with special guest Roy Rogers and that made for a great end to the first night of the festival.
One of the best kept secrets at the Biscuit is the Front Porch Stage in the Miller Annex of the Delta Cultural Center. It is open to the public and free of charge. Those that do know how wonderful it is get there early to get the limited seats. Others crowd around at the back and sit in the aisles to hear some of the most awesome blues around. Carla Robinson books this stage and does a phenomenal job of it. This year I was asked to emcee the stage and was thrilled to do so along with Ron Kelley of the Delta Cultural Center. We worked alongside Ben and Leon who did sound and stage. Thursday we kicked off the Front Porch Blues Bash with Stephen Blues Dude” Duncan. Stephen hails from Atlanta, GA and plays country blues. What a great way to start the bash with his beautiful pickings and singing. He was followed by Guitar Mac MacKnally. Guitar Mac, of Sacramento, CA chatted with me backstage for a bit. He is not a stranger to the Biscuit coming most every year and busking on Cherry Street. Originally from Cotton Plant, AR he migrated to the West Coast. He worked in the auto industry and, at times, drove a cab. While driving cabs, he used to take breaks and run to the clubs a play a bit, then hop back into the cab for a few more fares. He plays delta style blues and kept us rocking during his set. He was followed by a most entertaining artist, Brotha Ric Patton. Brotha Ric Patton performs live daily on the app “Periscope” and has over 5,000 followers who tune in to watch his one man band performances. He calls them VIPs. He introduced his band to the crowd by introducing on guitar “Ric’s hands”, on drums “Ric’s feet” and on harmonica “Ric’s lips”. For his first number he included the crowd. He told the story of being 5 years old and writing his first blues song. He was at his grandmother’s house and his sister broke his plastic guitar by using it to shut the door. He found a metal spice can and heated it up on a fire and pressed it on her forehead. He said his grandmother did not take too kindly to that and, as a result, he was able to write his very first blues song. He had the crowd to hold up one hand and called it “the booty” and the other hand was the “booty whipper” and he had them start whipping the booty while he sang his blues song which was the same verse repeated a variety of ways “I ain’t gonna do that no more Big Mama, I ain’t gonna do it no more”. He was a hit. Go check Brother Ric Patton of Huntsville, AL out on Periscope some night. He performs from the back of his van, the street corner or wherever he might be. You will love it. Ben Wiley Payton was next. Mr. Payton is a tall, distinguished man with a large smile and quiet demeanor. Mr. Payton is an acoustic blues artist with roots in the Delta. He was born in Coila, MS in the hill country but moved as a teen with his family to Chicago. He fell into the city’s blues and soul scene through the late 70s but took time off to raise his family. In the 90s he got back into acoustic blues and moved back to Mississippi. His style is best described as Country Blues. He was chosen to represent the state of Mississippi for the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series at the Library of Congress and performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. His country blues wowed the crowd and we all enjoyed his set. Bill “Howl-n-Madd” Perry was scheduled to close out the day at the Front Porch Stage but was ill. His daughter Shy and son, Bill, along with drummer Joe Eagle took the stage over. Shy and Bill both were on keyboards and they had the crowd going. Shy gyrated and danced the whole time she played keyboards and the crowd adored her. They played off each other well, sharing the spotlight and tearing it up! It was a great end to a fantastic day of music at the stage.
The only other performance that was a must-do for me on Friday was Linsey Alexander Band on the Lockwood/Stackhouse Stage and I was asked to emcee that performance. I was thrilled to introduce Linsey and his band. There was a great crowd ready and waiting, including several Chicago folks including artist Mike Wheeler and Blues on Halstead Manager Jennifer Littleton. They were there to see their hometown blues great. Linsey Alexander was born in Mississippi, raised in Memphis, TN and made Chicago’s southside his home. After introducing him, I joined the crowd down front and we rocked and rolled the entire time. The crowd grew larger and larger and he had a huge audience enjoying his performance. It was electric blues, it was Chicago blues and it had the folks by the balls. There were lots of crowd whoops and whistles. It was the best way to end the night’s performances.
Saturday brought me back to the Front Porch Stage to emcee again. We started it all off with Richard “Rip Lee” Pryor. WOW. He did not have to go far to earn his blues patch. He is the son of legendary Harmonica player Snooky Pryor. Rip Lee started at a young age by blowing his dad’s discarded harmonicas and mimicking his records. He later played guitar with his dad. Rip performs as a one man band with guitar and harmonica. His music had folks up dancing, particularly one gentleman named Johnny who had the crowd hollering with his juke joint dancing while Rip Lee performed. Johnny told me he learned to dance when he was little by peeping into the juke joints and watching the women dance. Robert Kimbrough Sr. Blues Connection was next. Robert Kimbrough, Sr. David Kimbrough, Kenny Kimbrough and Artemus Leseur brought the Mississippi Hill Country sound to the stage. They tore it up. We all loved it and the Front Porch Stage was on fire.
Up next was Willie Cobbs. Willie was born in Smale, AR (between Helena and Forrest City) and was involved in gospel music as a child. In his early 20s he moved to Chicago. He performed throughout the 60s – 80s and also opened clubs; in Stuttgart, AR he ran the Blue Flame and later opened The Turning Point in Itta Bena, MS. In the early 90s he began recording again and proved he was alive and well and still performing his blues. Willie had a band backing him as he played harmonica and interacted with the audience. He started with a bluesy version of “Who is He and What is He to You?” which set the tone. His playing and singing got Johnny the dancer up again and they even had a mini dance off; two older gentlemen twisting and turning to the blues. Willie whipped the crowd up and they were more than ready to continue the party with Vasti Jackson. Vasti is a world renowned guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, Mississippi living blues legend, Cultural Ambassador and 2015 Albert King Lifetime Guitar award recipient. His talent and showmanship were outstanding and he performed some classics and originals. He represents Mississippi well.
Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith followed with his all-star band They just finished playing on the main stage and rushed over to the Front Porch Stage where the performance is much more intimate and up close. Kenny is the son of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Kenny grew up in the same house where Muddy Waters once lived in Chicago. He grew up surrounded by his dad’s friends, including Muddy. His dad was Muddy’s drummer and played on all of Muddy’s Grammy winning albums. Kenny won a Grammy himself in 2011 for his work on Joined at the Hip with Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Joining him was Bob Margolin on Guitar. Bob was hired by Muddy Waters in 1973 and he toured the world playing and jamming with blues and rock musicians but says his biggest thrill was “playing Muddy’s blues with him”. Also joining in was Bob Stroger on Bass. Originally from Missouri, he moved to Chicago as a teen. Bob got into the blues scene by being hired to drive his brother in law to play in a blues band with J. B. Hutto. He is a self-taught guitarist and eventually starting playing the bass guitar. He backed Eddie King, Otis Rush, Sunnyland Slim, Mississippi Heat and many more. Omar Coleman, Harmonica, also joined them. Omar is recognized as one of the top ten harmonica players in the country. Born and raised on Chicago’s west side he learned harmonica from the music of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Sam Cooke, O. V. Wright and more. This high caliber talent put on one heck of a show that showcased their individual talents, as well. This was a phenomenal end to the Front Porch Stage line up and a great set up for the Youth Jam to follow.
The Youth Jam featured Marcus “Mookie” Cartwright leading the jam. The youth participating this year were Grace Kuch, a 13 year old guitarist from Colorado, D. R. Diamon a 16 year old drummer from Sulphur Springs, TX and Six String Andrew, an 11 year old guitarist from the Gulf Coast. These young people had some assistance from Carla Robinson and Ron Kelley on bass guitar. As usual, they got down and got the crowd on its feet. These kids are the future of the blues and the blues will be in great hands. That ended the festivities at the Delta Cultural Center and what a wonderful two days it was.
By no means was that the end of the festival. I was able to catch a bit of Trey Johnson and Jason Willmon on the street before having to get to the Lockwood/Stackhouse stage to catch Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, a 76 year old blues guitarist that can blow the socks off performers half her age. Originally from Commerce, GA she met Piano Red in her junior year of high school and joined his band playing in and around the clubs of Atlanta, GA. She also played with Eddie Tigner, Joseph Smith and Leroy Redding. In 1998, along with Koko Taylor and Rory Block, she was part of the all-women “Hot Mamas Tour”. This was an awesome show to catch. I have always wanted to see her perform and was beyond excited to get to see her. She did not disappoint. On stage, she was dressed simply and looked like she could be a really stern grandma. She played guitar with great force and brass and she was stunning! The crowd loved her and could not get enough but when she suddenly swung the guitar over her head and continued to play with the guitar behind her head and never missing a lick, the crowd went wild. I had such high expectations for this performance and I was not disappointed.
While I missed a lot of performances on the Main Stage, I certainly do not feel I missed a great festival. I loved the music at the Front Porch Stage, on the street and at the Lockwood/Stackhouse stage and count this year’s festival experience for me as “outstanding”.
"Nightflying down Hamburger Alley..."