The weather was glorious on the opening day of what is surely the finest
blues festival in the world.
President of the Sonny Boy Blues Society Stirling Billingsley gave his
usual solid set before the excellent Jumpin’ Johnny Sansome from New
Orleans took the stage by storm. Delivering great harp and vocals, the
band ripped through a set of originals until he dedicated Sonny Boy’s
“Keep it to Yourself” to sadly missed Helena native, Levon Helm.
of the day’s highlights was the superb Kenny Neal with his family
featuring Fredrick and Darnell and surprise guest, young nephew
Neal who delivered impressive guitar and vocal skill on ‘Born under a
Louisiana theme continued with a great set of zydeco from Wayne Toups on
accordion and his band ZydeCajun before we were treated to a wonderful
set of great soulful vocals from Cyril Neville.
Headline act on day 1 was the incomparable Bobby Rush. With his full
band (including the marvellous Dexter Gordon as one of the 4 guitarists)
the energetic 79 year old defied the years, delivering not only fine
music but also great (if slightly sexist) entertainment. The crowd loved
second day started quite sadly. In May I found the untimely death of
Michael Burks particularly hard to absorb. I had got to know Michael
very well having been introduced to him at the King Biscuit Festival 5
or 6 years ago. This then enabled me to book his 1st ever UK appearance
in November 2010 at our club gig in Overton on Dee and then again in
September 2011 [see footnote
below]. Both gigs are without a doubt the best we have ever
presented. Paul and John Taylor and I were thus invited on the morning
of the second day to meet Michael's widow Bobbie at the memorial site
that had been created at the campsite at the festival where Michael used
to park his huge campervan and invite guests and fans for food and a
beer. It was a very moving and touching moment. This phenomenal
guitarist was only 54 and I have no doubt he would have been at the very
top of the ladder in a short while.
second day musical proceedings on the main stage were kicked off by the
superb Earnest “Guitar” Roy from Clarksdale powering through his set of
classic blues and featuring ex Michael Burks drummer Chuck 'Popcorn'
up was James “Nick” Nixon, the soulful blues singer from Nashville. A
long time member of The New Imperials he was backed by Andy T and his
band with the brilliant Anson Funderburgh on guitar. Stand out track was
a superb version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You”.
the 2nd stage, the Lockwood stage, Austin “Walkin’ Cane”
impressed with his dedication to Robert Johnson “Murder of a Blues
Singer” whilst on the main stage, tall stunning blonde Tullie Brae
backed by some fine musicians in her band The Medicine Man Revue
delivering high octane rocking blues vocals.
Gibson from Memphis blew some great harp in the Miller Theatre whilst on
the street there was a fine set from the father daughter duo of
Tyrannosaurus Chicken and an incredibly entertaining set from Watermelon
Slim showing the calibre of artist the festival attracts off the main
However, the highlight of the festival was without a doubt Ruthie
Foster. This lovely diminutive singer guitarist from Texas possesses one
of the finest voices in modern blues. Performing songs from her new
release “Let It Burn” she received thunderous applause for her gospel
influenced “Titanic” sung a cappella with thousands of fans swaying,
clapping and humming forming a huge gospel choir. A memorable moment.
Her refreshing version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was superb as was
her title track of her 2002 CD “Runaway Soul”. Let’s hope we can see her
in the UK in the future.
Funderburgh has to be one of the slickest guitarists in the USA and the
smooth Texas swing of his band The Rockets was superbly complemented by
his guest Kim Wilson who proved why he is one of the greatest harp
players in the world.
They were followed by Paul Thorn and his
band - "One of the best kept secrets in music " according to Kris
Kristofferson. From Tupelo, he has a massive following in the southern
states and is essentially a country rock band. His set was musically
brilliant and incredibly entertaining . His strengths lie in his song
writing displayed in such songs as "Pimps and Preachers".
Astonishingly, the temperature plummeted 20
degrees in around 5 minutes as an Arctic front hit the state causing
many to leave. We therefore ended up missing Vasti Jackson and Carl Weathersby and also headliner
Taj Mahal as we retreated from the heavy
The final day was cold and wet and caused
some of the fringe stages to close down. Samantha Fish was everything
one would expect from Thomas Ruf's latest attempts at bringing young,
attractive blues rock guitarists to the masses. She could play and sing
but was really not a lot different to all his other young guitarists.
Next up was some real blues with Kenny
Smith taking over the mantle of his late father Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.
With him were Bob Margolin on guitar, Bob Stroger on bass and
of Saffire, The Uppity Blues Women on keyboard. A great set was a
fitting tribute to Chicago blues.
In the Miller Theatre we caught The
Peterson Brothers, two amazingly talented youngsters from Texas. Glenn
on guitar is 15 and his brother Alex on bass is 13 and helping to mentor
them is Chuck "Popcorn" Loudon who was on drums. Showing superb skill
and maturity they wowed the audience proving that the blues is very much
alive in young African Americans.
We caught snatches of the queen of Memphis
blues and firm festival favourite Reba Russell with her superb band and
also a little of The Cate Brothers who were awarded the Sonny Boy Award
for services to the blues. During short breaks in the rain, we also saw
some of the acts from the second stage and were impressed with the great
sax playing of Helena native Phillip Stackhouse (grandson of legendary
Houston Stackhouse) and also Fruteland Jackson who never fails to
impress with his great acoustic playing and singing.
On the main stage, Randall Bramblett on
keys and his band were not really a blues band but nonetheless served a
superb set of country influenced music.
On the Rising Biscuit stage, all the acts
were cancelled except fortuitously the debut appearance by British band
Backbone who were playing with superb Tulsa harp player David Berntson
and gave a superb account of themselves.
We were able to catch a superb soul blues set on the 2nd stage from EB
Davis. Arkansas native but now resident in Germany, he had his regular
Europe band with him with Jay Bailey on guitar and the wonderful
Davis on keyboard.
The final act for us was the wonderful
James Cotton. Now 77 years old, this legend from the Muddy Waters band
still plays absolutely brilliantly. Backed by a top notch band he
introduced Darrell Nulisch on vocals who, sitting next to Cotton,
performed superbly on "Rocket 88" and "Who’s Loving You tonight". A real
Unfortunately, we cannot report on
headliner Bonnie Raitt as we all decided to give her a miss. We had been
made to agree to some quite draconian measures regarding photography and
as more requests and apparent issues became known to us, we decided that
we'd head back to Clarksdale instead. This was after all a blues
festival in the deep south.
It had been a wonderful festival yet again
and as ever, was superbly organised by the lovely friendly people of
Helena. It was a shame that due to the weather we had missed some acts
that we had wanted to see - but there is always next year. We'll be
there, why not come and join us.
Pete Evans and John Taylor
big thank you to Pete and John for the review
Alan White, Earlyblues.com
Click here for the exclusive UK Earlyblues
interview with Michael Burks at the Carlisle Blues Festival 2010
Click here for the photos of Michael Burks at the
Carlisle Blues Festival 2010
Click to go back to The King Biscuit Blues
Festival introduction page
Pete Evans and John Taylor