The 30th King Biscuit Blues Festival Oct 7th-10th2015,
the few days leading up to the King Biscuit Blues Festival, some
excellent gigs were taken in at Clarksdale Mississippi, my base for the
week. October 4th saw Watermelon Slim and his band play at
The Bluesberry Cafe and on October 5th at the iconic old juke
joint Red’s Lounge, I saw the fast rising guitar star of the local blues
scene Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. Only just 16, he has already played
at The White House for Michelle Obama and has shared a stage with many
US blues legends. A real star in the making, mark his name well. The
next night again at Red’s Lounge I saw a great set from local harpman
Deke Harp accompanying himself on guitar and with strangely named
Quicksand on drums, he played an inspired set of north Mississippi hill
Helena is a small town located just on the other side of the Mississippi
river in Arkansas. In its heyday when cotton was king, it was a
prosperous town but like many towns in the deep south, it had seen a
downturn in its fortunes. However, since the rebirth of interest in
blues, the festival has resulted in a gradual improvement in the town
and during the festival week, it is a vibrant place.
opening day Thursday has only the main stage in operation with the other
stages in operation on the next two days and opening the proceedings was
the new Memphis band Mississippi Bigfoot showcasing their new CD
Population Unknown and featuring the powerful Joplin reminiscent vocals
of Christina Vierra. Stand out track was Burn That Woman Down.
Festival regular Stirling Billingsley was next up featuring most of the
ex Reba Russell Band and playing a good collection of classic blues
covers and featuring particularly strong harp from Robert “Nighthawk”
Brandon Santini from Memphis has been building up a solid reputation
recently and his name is now spoken alongside many of the top
contemporary harp players in the USA. This was certainly justified
during a superb tight set featuring top track Evil Woman and a great
cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Bye Bye Bird.
Harmon from Jackson Mississippi has a CV longer than most musicians
including song writing stints with Michael Jackson. His powerful vocals
and driving guitar though are his blues trademark and his superb set
included the tracks Blue Pill Thrill and Raising Hell. Standout though
was an emotive Knocking On Heaven’s Door dedicated to the late Michael
America’s answer to Status Quo has to be Grammy winning The Kentucky
Headhunters. The core of the band has been together for 45 years and in
that time have been playing good old fashioned blues influenced rock ‘n’
roll all over the southern states building a great following. Most of
their set was from their recent Alligator release Meet Me in Bluesland
recorded in 2003 with the late legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson and in
dedication to him they featured Little Queenie. A standout was their
take on Crossroads which was more like Cream’s version rather than
Another act with an impressive CV is The Cate Brothers and their band.
Twins Earl and Ernie from Fayetteville Arkansas in the late 50s were in
a band with Levon Helm and Ronnie Hawkins who went on to form The Band.
Their blues influenced country rock has remained extremely popular in
the South with their track Am I Losing You the stand out.
so hard to believe that Bobby Rush is 82 years old. A King Biscuit
favourite he headlined with his full revue and as ever, he pushed the
boundaries of political correctness but as far as entertainment goes,
there can be very few better acts. With a superb tight band and a brace
of dancing girls shaking their booties, he jumped and cavorted around
the stage with the energy of a person half his years. The music was
pretty damn good too!
second day presented 2 further stages, the Front Porch Stage and the
Lockwood – Stackhouse Stage and it was the latter where Austin Walking
Cane kicked off with a superb set of acoustic blues.
Front Porch is a smaller venue set in a small hall on Cherry Street and
far more intimate for some real close up blues and I caught the tail end
of 87 year old L C Ulmer and then a great set from Louis “Gearshifter”
Youngblood, the nephew of Tommy Johnson.
excellent performances during the day at the Front Porch included some
great north Mississippi blues from Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayres
followed by Memphis favourite Blind Mississippi Morris who blew some
superb energetic harp. Completing the sessions at this stage was
Louisiana guitarist Selwyn Cooper who possesses a lovely, clean, unfussy
guitar style beautifully demonstrated on the instrumental Grissy.
act seen on the main stage was Biscuit regular Reba Russell who is
undoubtedly one of the best singers in the U S blues world although
latterly she has not been performing regularly. She belted out some of
her classics including Love Is The Cure and a brilliant rendition of U2’
s Love Comes To Town having sung on the original recording as a backing
up was Texan Anson Funderburgh who has played at every King Biscuit
Festival and is one of the classiest of American guitarists possessing a
sweet tone. With his super tight band fronted by Austrian Christian
Dozzler, they gave a performance of class aided by guest Greg Izor on
harp and vocals.
a brief visit to the 2nd stage to see a few numbers by the
excellent Memphis band, The Wampus Cats fronted by one of the nicest and
hardest working musicians from that city, Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms on
keys and harp it was back to the main stage to see one of the most
popular acts in the south.
as Bobby Rush has stage presence, so does Tupelo’s Paul Thorn. His music
is more country rock than blues but with his brilliant band and his slow
Mississippi drawl, he has the audience eating out of his hand. His self
penned repertoire often preceded by an amusing introduction or anecdote
draw on tales from his life and included songs like Burn Down The
Trailer Park, Pimps and Preachers, What The Hell Is Going On and the
brilliant Long Way From Tupelo. I wish we could see this band in the
UK...he’d go down a bomb.
thought of staying to see some of headliner Jimmie Vaughan but I
particularly wanted to catch one of my favourite Chicago bands, The
Jimmy Burns Band on the 2nd stage and once I’d got
established there, I decided I just couldn’t leave. He was absolutely
superb showcasing songs from his 4 Delmark CDs including his latest It
Ain't Right. High lights were Leaving Here Walking and Stand By Me which
showcased his wonderful soulful vocals. An encore produced a very moving
version of Sam Cooke’s Nothing Can Change This Love dedicated to his
late wife Dorothy. Remarkably, after his performance Paul Taylor and I
bought copies of his new CD It Ain’t Right. He was signing the copies
and suddenly said “ I know you boys...you’re Pete and Paul the dentists
from Wrexham in Wales. I played for you at your club, Hookers in 2000
with The Harpbreakers!” We were stunned. What a memory. It still remains
one of the most memorable gigs we have ever put on and still remains
Jimmy’s only club appearance in the UK. Let’s hope he can come over
again one day.
final day’s music was delayed for a few hours due to the demands of the
Wales Australia Rugby World Cup match watched on Facetime!! Suitably
disappointed I made my way to the Front Porch Stage to catch the
wonderful 83 year old Leo “Bud” Welch who had played at our club in
Worthenbury only 6 weeks earlier. He is quite a remarkable performer and
will be returning to the UK again next year so I urge everyone to catch
one of his shows. I then caught a little of another of the Burnside
clan, Gary who gave us a soulful and funky set of blues.
hoping to see the set of the superbly named Ironing Board Sam on the
second stage but was saddened to hear that he had cancelled due to ill
health. We wish him a speedy recovery. However, I was pleased to hear
that Jimbo Mathus and The Tri State Coalition had stepped up to replace
him and the band delivered a great set of country/blues/rock which went
down really well.
of the features of the festival is the superb quality of street
musicians that particularly appear on the final day along the length of
Cherry Street at most of the street corners. A good number of these
artists are quite capable of gracing the main stage and certainly the
second stage. This year some of the artists who stood out were Rip Lee
Pryor, son of legendary Snooky on guitar and rack harp and Terry
“Harmonica” Bean on similar instruments both attracting big crowds. Adam
Gussow is a professor at Oxford University, Mississippi and apart and
from blowing great harp was selling copies of his new book, Busker’s
attracting big crowds were the eccentrically named but brilliant
Tyrannosaurus Chicken with Smilin’ Bob Lewis and Rachel Ammons and their
rhythmic trance delta blues whilst Lucious Spiller, a regular on the
local scene is a very talented and popular guitarist.
on the main stage I caught the tail end of some great Chicago blues from
Bob Margolin, Bob Stroger and Kenny Smith before UK regular Larry McCray
took the stage but not before he was presented with the 2015 Sonny Boy
Blues Society Award for services to the blues. He has not been in the
best of health recently so it was good to see him on fine form playing
his famous Gibson Flying V.
his regular band including brother Steve on drums and the eccentric
Kerry Clarke on bass he blasted through his classic repertoire with You
Can’t Spend What You Ain’t Got a star number.
T and Nick Nixon really impressed me on my last visit to the festival
and they were next to grace the main stage along with guitar ace Anson
Funderburgh and Dana Robbins on sax. Nixon from Nashville has been
singing gospel, R’n’B and also soul with The New Imperials, for 50+
years, whilst Andy “T” Talamantez also from Nashville was an
aeronautical engineer until in 1997, he became a full time musician
playing with Smokey Wilson and Guitar Shorty. His mellow T Bone Walker
style guitar backing Nixon’s smooth soulful voice was superb as they
showcased numbers from their new CD Numbers Man with Pretty Girls
Everywhere a standout track.
then fortunate to see, as far as I am concerned, the star of the
festival when Ruthie Foster took the stage. The diminutive Texan was
absolutely superb from start to finish. Featuring songs from her recent
CDs Promise Of A Brand New day, and Let It Burn, she completely
mesmerised the audience with the range and power of her vocals. Her
version of John Hurt’s Richland Woman Blues demonstrated her guitar
prowess whilst her interpretation of Ring Of Fire is quite amazing. The
highlight though was Phenomenal Woman her song based on a poem by Maya
Angelou, the writer, poet and civil rights activist. What a
Unfortunately I didn’t stay too long for Taj Mahal and his set as good
though it was at the start, many of the photographers in the front of
stage area had to leave in a hurry due to the uncomfortably loud bass
amplification through the large speakers. It was quite disturbing and
many of the audience were shouting to turn the amp down and it spoiled
what I’m sure would have been a good set. I thus moved to the 2nd
stage for the final set of the festival from Lucky Peterson and his
band. And what a good set it was with passion, fun and great soulful
funky music. The highlight among some great numbers was a version of
Stevie Wonder’s I Wish.
came to an end of 3 days of great music at what is undoubtedly the best
blues festival in the world. It is impossible to see all the acts and
there was even a stage devoted to gospel choirs on the Saturday that I
just could not get to see.
Finally, a big thank you must go to the organisers, helpers and
volunteers from Helena who work tirelessly to help the event be such a
success and the friendly way that they deal with the fans is always
memorable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again...if you only ever
go to one blues festival then let it be The King Biscuit.
big thank you to Pete Evans for the review
Alan White, Earlyblues.com
Click to go back to The King Biscuit Blues
Festival introduction page
Pete Evans and John Taylor