King Biscuit, Part 2
Let me take you back one more time to the final day of the 16th Annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. A front of cold air and rain had come through Helena, Arkansas the night before, but on Saturday, October 6, it was a cool clear day, perfect for the largest turnout of the Festival. The music started early on the Main Stage, in order to include some of the musicians who didn't get to perform on Friday. Pinetop Perkins teamed up with Rusty Zinn to span three generations of the blues on "the Chill" and "Ludella."
The Houston Stackhouse Stage opened up with the indomitable 94-year-old Othar (Otha) Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. This age-old tradition of marching processions going through the countryside calling the community to the picnics stills goes on at his goat farm in the northern hill country around Senatobia, Mississippi. It appears that this tradition is being passed on to his daughter Bernice and twelve-year-old granddaughter Sharde, both of whom blow a mean fife and sing.
Back at the Main Stage, Austin-based harpman Gary Primich was warming up the crowd for Billy Boy Arnold with his swinging Texas blues. Arnold made his first recordings on Chicago's Cool label at only 17 and got stuck with the "Billy Boy" nickname. After recording his choking harp style on several of Bo Diddley's early recordings for Checker (Chess), he switched to Vee Jay to record such classics as "I Ain't Got You," which he did at the Festival. Billy Boy did several songs from his recent Boogie `N' Shuffle CD, including "Blackjack," a tune about the pitfalls of gambling. Since one of the Festival's major sponsors was the Isle of Capri Casino, those lyrics may have fallen on deaf ears. Primich jammed with Arnold on "Home in Your Heart" to close out the set. Jimmy Johnson followed, demonstrating his note-bending guitar technique combined with his high-pitched voice which has earned him the title of "The Barroom Preacher."
The King Biscuit Festival would not be complete without Robert Lockwood Jr. in attendance. The "Jr." in Lockwood's name has recently shifted from the middle to the end of his name, as a result of his changing both his signature and the spelling on his beautiful new baby blue twelve-string guitar. Johnson played with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) on the KFFA "King Biscuit Time: radio show during the early Forties in Helena. His style has taken on a more contemporary jazzy swing form that he learned from his mentor, Robert Johnson.
Jody Williams has come out of self-imposed exile to spread his Chicago blues to a new generation. Williams' set was so hot, it made an overhead power line start to glow and, unfortunately, they had to cut his portion of the show short.
Howard Tate replaced Snooks Eaglin as one of the headliners on the Main Stage. Tate had dropped out of sight following his soul blues singer period in the '60s, when he had hits with "Ain't Nobody Home" and "Get It While You Can." Tate had become a minister serving the homeless in New Jersey when he was rediscovered and convinced to return to music. His initial comeback appearance was at this year's New Orleans Jazz and Music Heritage Festival and he has been touring since. Tate is still a powerful performer with a voice that has not diminished.
Bobby Rush and his Revue closed the Festival with his gyrating women and lots of risqué rapping with the audience. Rush has overcome last year's tragic accident and has graduated from the chitlin to the festival circuit.
Joe Wells Benefit
The last time I was at Zena's was for the glorious tribute to Mary Jean Zena in March. There was another special gathering on November 15 for one of Louisville's best soul singers, Joe Wells. Wells has been diagnosed with cancer and so a benefit was arranged to raise some cash as well as repay him for all those weekends when he led the Original 26th Street Blues Band at Zena's. Ron Lewis was the emcee for what was a packed house of Wells' fans as well as a bunch of Louisville players. L.A. Groove opened, led by guitarist and vocalist Greg Claggett. Wells came on next, looking very dapper in his matching white hat, long stain jacket and trousers. His family was seated at the long table near the stage. When Wells asked them all to stand, Fred Murphy was there and stood up, too. In fact, we were all an extension of Wells' family that night.
Wells worked hard, frequently mopping his brow, and had to sit down for part of his set, but his falsetto voice did not fail him. Murphy helped out singing "Angel of Mercy" and "Nights By Myself," punctuating his lyrics with his down-home harp playing.
The Last Minute Blues Band followed. Billy Bird has been with the band for nearly a year, since Marcus Tharpe moved to Austin. Bird's intense vocals and harp add a lot of emotion to the band.
Tanita Gaines closed out the night in grand style, as she does every Tuesday night at Zena's. Gaines said "I started out singing with Joe" when she opened her set. And sing she did, with "Ride My Pony" and "Lick It Before You Stick It." Her twin towers of guitar power backup, Monk Mackey and Dave Witherspoon, traded outstanding licks. When she was finishing up with an electric slide, Joe DeBow walked through the door and joined her on a duet.
I hope Louisville's Soul Brother, Joe Wells, can rally the crowd many more times.
KBS Birthday Bash
Several years ago, the Kentuckiana Blues Society wisely decided to make their general membership meeting into birthday parties in order to attract more people. Out talent this year was first rate, with the Rose Island String Band (Walter Lay and John Burgard) doing a brief set of traditional blues. The band was then transformed into Dr. Hemiola and the Blues Activators for a rocking set of original and classic songs. Lay's "Cold Wind Blowing" is an original that's likely to become one of the band's standards.
The newest member of the band is none other than Sue O'Neil. Since her keyboard player, Bill Dean, has gone on to other things, her old band, the Blueshounds, have gone missing. O'Neil sounded especially good with Dr. Hemiola, singing "Spoonful" and "Blow Top Blues."
The headliner was Eddie King, a Chicago guitarist who played with KoKo Taylor for twenty years. King has been traveling overseas to Turkey and Russia, enjoying the food, he says, especially the lamb dishes. He plays a worn Gibson with a guitar strap made of shiny rings that look like handcuffs. His other axe is a worn white Fender named "Little Sister." His band, the King Bees, includes his cousin on second guitar and his musical manager, who plays both sax and keyboard, sometimes nearly simultaneously. King played the title cut from his CD, "Another Cow's Dead," plus "Hey, Mr. Bluesman" and, with a little coaxing, did "Kitty Kat."
Between sets, the Sylvester Weaver Award was given to WFPK on air personality Scott Mullins, who has done more than anyone to promote the Louisville blues scene, hosting the "Saturday Night Blues Party" on WFPK, creating Rollin' and Tumblin' Records and was a founding member if the KBS. It's fitting that the man who conceived the Sylvester Weaver Award should be it's 13th recipient.