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King Biscuit Blues  Festival 2011
Helena, Arkansas : 6th - 8th October 2011

Review by Pete Evans 


This was the 26th year that this festival had taken place and it was great to welcome back The King Biscuit title for the 1st time since 2004. 

The opening day commences with winning bands from the various blues competitions and the Lionel Young Band from Colorado, the winners of the Memphis International Blues Challenge were of particular note.

Following Arkansas stalwart Stirling Billingsley’s appearance, Mike Zito from St Louis made his Biscuit debut and gave a cracking set of acoustic and electric blues with particularly good slide guitar on Natural Born Woman

Reba Russell © Copyright 2011 Pete Evans. All Rights Reserved.Reba Russell, to quote MC Bubba Sullivan, is “the greatest American white blues singer” and few would disagree. She opened up with a sensitive song dedicated to Ray Galloway, one of the festival founders who sadly passed away in January.

This was followed by a superb set of originals and covers including Wang Dang Doodle and My Babe. Outstanding throughout was young Josh Roberts on guitar. UK festival organisers – this band is brilliant – please note! 

Slide maestro Roy Rogers was next on stage and demonstrated superb musicianship especially on Robert Johnson’s Stones In My Passway[See Earlyblues Interview with Roy Rogers]

Roomful of Blues were formed over 40 years ago and still have original tenor saxophonist Rich Lataille in their ranks. The latest line-up were superbly tight with a great mix of swing and blues with Good Time Charlie a standout. For the last part of their set they were joined on harp by legendary 76 year old James Cotton, now one of the last members of the Muddy Waters Band. His playing was strong and true throughout and it was great to see each member of the band shake his hand at the end. He was then presented with the 2011 award for Blues Excellence by the legendary 85 year old DJ Sonny Payne who has been presenting King Biscuit Time blues on radio KFFA in Helena for over 60 years. 

Buddy Guy headlined the 1st night and he came out all guns blazing as he superbly tore through Hoochie Coochie Man, Back Door Man and While You were Slipping Out. He then went on a levee walkabout generating great excitement. However, he then unfortunately reverted to his irritating habit of stopping and talking in mid song and, and in my opinion, lost some of his momentum and we left soon after. Shame. 

The second day kicked off with Nashville based guitarist Stacy Mitchhart with a tight, funky brass section with a big sound and a  great opening act that was then followed by Memphis enigma Don Nix. This singer songwriter has worked with so many people starting from the early Stax days through to some of the biggest names in blues and rock, writing and producing classics like Goin’ Down and On The Road Again. But it was Plastic Flowers and Going To Iuka along with Same Old Blues his song recorded by Freddy King that were the high points. 

Larry Garner is a regular UK visitor playing with Norman Beaker and his band but with his USA band he had the audience in his hands especially with Keep on Singing the Blues. He was also joined on harp by Sam Joyner. [See Earlyblues Interview with Larry Garner]

The next band on the main stage then played what turned out to be a tribute set to the sadly recently departed Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Earlier in the day at the Miller Hotel near the main stage, a very emotional gig had taken place with Kenny Smith (Willie’s son) on drums, Bob Stroger on bass, Bob Margolin on guitar and Bob Corritore on harp.

Hubert Sumlin © Copyright 2011 Pete Evans. All Rights Reserved.With Jimmy Mayes replacing Kenny Smith on the main stage, the band was joined by a frail Hubert Sumlin on guitar. He was however on fine form especially on Sitting on Top of The World

Meanwhile on the second stage, The Lockwood-Stackhouse Stage, Memphis band The Wampus Cats delivered a cracking set led by top organist Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms who stayed on stage to join veteran Memphis and ex John Mayall guitarist Papa Don McMinn whose band consisted of sons Doug on drums, Rome on bass and joining him for his 1st major gig, 12 year old grandson Mike on harp – a unique moment. 

Back on the main stage, Arkansas son and favourite Michael Burks with his incredibly tight band blasted through a brilliant set including a levee walkabout. On the song Ashes in My Ashtray, he is reminiscent of Albert King. [See Earlyblues Interview with Michael Burks]

He was followed by another silky smooth set by Texan Anson Funderburgh keeping up his record of appearing at every single King Biscuit Festival. 

The second stage then featured Dexter Allen from Jackson Mississippi. Last year he backed Mojo Buford but this time he produced a fast, funky and often frenetic set of great guitar work. 

He was followed by the ever popular 78 year old Bobby Rush who, backed by just a bass and guitar, teased and tantalised the packed stage. Playing guitar and harp and often singing a cappella he had the audience, especially the ladies, completely under his spell especially on Blind Snake – Mississippi’s version of Tom Jones! 

The main stage though in the meantime had gone country. Guitarist Paul Thorn was relatively unknown to blues fans when he appeared last year but he was regarded by many as the star of the festival. Whilst essentially a country singer he does touch on blues influences. However it is his superb often amusing delivery of his songs like Pimps and Preachers that makes him so popular.  

To conclude the day, he was followed by the evergreen Delbert McClinton. Backed by a superb band including Bruce Katz on keys and Dana Robbins on sax, he performed many of his classic tracks including Going Back to Louisiana, and also gave us a great version of Muddy Waters’ 19 Years Old

T Model Ford © Copyright 2011 Pete Evans. All Rights Reserved.The final day gets very hectic with large crowds and 2 more stages in operation. A first visit to the 2nd stage saw the oldest performer of the weekend with 90 year old T Model Ford backed by his teenage grandson Stud on drums. After a quick midday slug of Jack Daniels, this wry old character had a packed stage as he worked his way through a host of covers including Big Boss Man. His younger wife Stella even got on stage to “shake her booty” 

He was followed by the excellent Ben Wiley Payton, a complete contrast to T Model, with his clean, authentic style and great voice. 

The main stage opened up with regular UK visitor, Detroit’s Sharrie Williams whose big voice might have been better suited to later in the day. She was followed by guitarist Kirk Fletcher who has already packed a lot into his 36 years with stints with Charlie Musselwhite, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and more recently The Mannish Boys. An excellent guitarist who demonstrated his credentials on a version of The Stumble

Logistically with the large crowds, it is impossible to see every act and so sadly I only caught ten minutes of Big Bill Morganfield before seeing the very impressive Lonnie Shields on the 2nd stage. A clean sounding guitar backed by a great voice and a tight band made for an excellent show with stand out tracks Sleeping In My Bed and The Thrill is Gone, complete with walkabout. 

Moreland and Arbuckle are two young boys from Kansas who authentically combine Delta and Urban blues into a raw gritty modern mix, no more so than on The Ballad of John Henry with outstanding harp and cigar box slide guitar. Hope we can see them over here one day – they’d go down a storm. 

Matt Schofield was flying the flag for the UK on the main stage backed by Johnny Henderson also of the UK on keys and Robert Cray’s drummer Kevin Hayes. He gave a masterful display gaining great applause especially on Shipwrecked. Let’s hope more Brits might be represented in the future. 

Kyle Perry © Copyright 2011 Pete Evans. All Rights Reserved.One of the extra stages was showcasing up and coming younger talent and there were two acts that confirm that the blues is in safe hands. The Peterson Brothers from Texas are Glenn (15) on lead guitar and Alex (12) on bass and they play superb blues with great maturity. Another young band who have attracted rave reviews are Homemade Jamz from Tupelo Mississippi comprising of Ryan Perry on guitar (19), his brother Kyle (17) on bass and sister Taya (13) on drums. Their version of Lean On Me was outstanding. 

Street performers always feature superbly on the main street, Cherry Street and stand out performers were guitarist Bill Abel and the oddly named but superb father and daughter duo Tyrannosaurus Chicken playing some superb stomping Hokum style blues. 

Back on the main stage Tommy Castro was another guitarist who went on a levee walkabout. He has a superb band with possibly one of the best brass sections of the weekend with Make It Back To Memphis the standout track. 

The second stage featured Memphis favourite Blind Mississippi Morris blowing some great harp with raw vocals and he was followed by Earnest “Guitar” Roy from Clarksdale playing some nice clean guitar on Catfish Blues and other covers joined by Bob Corritore on harp.  

Cedric Burnside was next up with his new guitarist Trenton Ayers. The duo captivated the large crowd with Cedric’s powerful drumming complementing Trenton’s understated guitar with the north Mississippi Hill Country blues of R L Burnside. Stand out tracks were Going Down Slow and Junior Kimbrough’s All Night Long

The Stax review hit the main stage with Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Lester Snell and Steve Potts setting the scene with some classic Memphis 60s with Green Onions, Hip Hug Her and Time Is Tight before a very sprightly 74 year old Eddie Floyd belted out amongst others the classic Knock On Wood and 6345789. Great stuff. [See Earlyblues Interview with Steve Cropper]

Keb Mo © Copyright 2011 Pete Evans. All Rights Reserved.The final act of the festival was Keb’ Mo’ playing with a full band including two keyboard players. It would have seemed difficult to follow the energy of the Stax Review but the band performed superbly with Dangerous Mood a standout. It was however when Keb reverted to acoustic guitar that he was at his best especially with the wonderful We Don’t Need It off his brand new CD 'The Reflection'. 

Yet again the festival was an overwhelming success and yet again immense thanks must go to the 500+ volunteers, helpers and organisers from Helena for putting on such a brilliant festival. Everyone is so welcoming and friendly and it is without a doubt the ultimate in blues experience. Bring on 2012!

Pete Evans

A big thank you to Pete for the review
Alan White, Earlyblues.com



Website, Photos and Text © Copyright 2000-2012 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Photos (this page) © Copyright 2011 Pete Evans. All Rights Reserved.
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