Pass the Biscuits. It's....
I've attended the King Biscuit Blues Festival every other year since 1997, so this year was my third trip and the festival's sixteenth staging. When as we left Tennessee and entered the flat Mississippi delta landscape, it was early October, cotton harvest time. Many of the fields were still white with cluster of cotton bolls on the stems. The huge combines were working the rows stripping the bolls as the slaves and sharecroppers used to do. The loose cotton is then compressed into large, rectangular blocks the size of a semi trailer to await transport to the local cotton gin for processing.
The gravel shoulders along Highway 61 were littered with small remnants of lost cotton. Machines long ago replaced the hard labor that was done on the Dockery, Hepson and Stovall plantations when cotton was picked and, later, bolls were pulled by hand. Music was an escape from the drudgery of this hard life back then. If you were talented enough to be a blues musician, it was an exemption from hard work and ticket out of the farm to the towns and cities. Helena, Arkansas was one of those towns that attracted many bluesmen, most notably, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller).
The King Biscuit Flour company sponsored a radio program called King Biscuit Time that featured him. This show still airs each day at noon on KFFA, opened by the host, Sonny Byne, who says "Pass the biscuits, it's King Biscuit Time." Byne was paid a tribute during the festival's first night, Thursday, October 4, for still hosting the show, which at 60 is the longest running blues program in the world.
The Lady Luck Casino that was located by the bridge just before you crossed over the Mississippi River into Arkansas is now called the Isle of Capri. A large parrot has replaced the guitars in front of the casino. The casino, along with Budweiser, sponsors the festival. The Sonny Boy Blues Society is now managing instead of just producing the festival for Main Street Helena and they will take over the ownership for next year's Biscuit.
Now for the music. Billy Lee Riley brought his genuine rockabilly style of blues to the festival on Thursday. He's the real thing, having led the house band for many of Sun Records' early recordings in the `50s. His first hit was "Flying Saucer Rock `n' Roll" and he soon formed his own band, the Little Green Men, from the studio musicians. Jerry Lee Lewis played piano in the band during one four-month stint. Riley returned the favor later by playing bass on Lewis' "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On."
Riley was in good form, singing some of the foundation tunes of rock `n' roll, like "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "My Gal is Red Hot." He played both harp and a little guitar.
After I checked into our motel in Clarksdale, I returned to the festival hear some new talent. Janiva Magness came from L.A. where she had moved after starting in Detroit. Her strong voice growled and cooed on mostly original songs like "That's Why I'm Crying." But it was the guitar work by George Friendly that stole the show. Janiva allowed Friendly to stretch out on some fiery solos that rivaled Jimmy Vaughn and Duke Robillard. After their set, Friendly said he once played at the Phoenix Hill and Twice Told Coffee House when he was performing with The Fighting Tarantulas. He's a rising star to watch for.
The headliners that night were Larry McCray and Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets featuring Sam Myers. McCray's powerful voice and stinging guitar connection with "Blues is My Business (and Business is Good)." Funderburgh, like Robert Lockwood Jr. is a regular at all the Biscuit festivals. He arrived in his vintage streamlined green and maroon bus with "Rockets" displayed in the front destination window. Meyers was onstage joking about the old days, when he ran around with Lockwood in Helena. When he mentioned that he used to call Lockwood "Baldy," Lockwood appeared to give him a gentle whoopin'.
I made a brief visit to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale on Friday morning. Muddy Waters' rustic log cabin has finally found a resting place in the back of the museum. The last time I saw it, it was sitting in the middle of Columbia Avenue during the 1996 Chicago Blues Festival. (It really should be returned to its original location Stovall's Plantation.)
Morgan Freeman has recently opened a blues club called Ground Zero near the museum on Blues Alley. An unfortunately ominous name considering the recent terrorist tragedy.
Friday's festival started off with Richard Johnston, the wonder kid who won this year's International Blues Competition all by himself. He played shoeless with one foot on the tramps and bass drum and the other foot on a combination tambourine, cymbal and snare drum. His electrified guitar was fabricated from a cigar box for the body and two broom handles for the neck. He captures Jr. Kimbrough's northern Mississippi one-chord drone with an up-tempo twist. Look for his first CD coming out next January. When I visited Jr. Kimbrough's Jook Joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi, After the 1999 Biscuit, I taped a couple of songs by Johnston. I had no idea who this kid was then but he sure sounded good. When I gave him a copy of the tape at the festival, he was very appreciative and gave me a signed copy of his first poster. He is another rising star to watch for.
Back on the Main Stage, the interesting group of Sam Carr, Fred James, Dave Riley, Greg Martin and, briefly, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckleby was doing a set. Later, Greg Martin said how he would like to get back to his blues roots again with another group like the old Stray Cats Band.
Many musicians wore red, white and blue garb as a sign of their patriotism. Guitar Shorty was the most ostentatious, with pants that had stripes on one leg and stars on the other, plus a small American flag sticking out of the top of the next of his Fender. Shorty opened with a distorted Hendrix version of the "Star Spangled Banner." I didn't know whether to stand up or sit down. He didn't do his signature roll and tumble during his act but he did get off the stage and walked throughout the crowd on an extended version of "Hey, Jude."
When Billy Brand and his SOBs (Sons of the Blues) were performing, the wind, rain and cold hit all at once. It was time for Plan B, which moved the remaining acts, including Marcia Ball, indoors to Sonny Boy's Music Hall for the rest of the evening. Several musicians who didn't get to perform that night stuck around for Saturday, but that's another story and another article.