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King Biscuit Blues  Festival 2015
Helena, Arkansas : 7th - 10th October 2015  

Review by Pete Evans


The 30th King Biscuit Blues Festival Oct 7th-10th2015, Helena, Arkansas 

In 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 country blues. 

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. 

The 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” Tooms. 

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. 

Zac 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 Burks. 

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 Robert Johnson’s. 

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. 

It is 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! 

The 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. 

The 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. 

Other 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. 

The 1st 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 singer. 

Next 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. 

After 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. 

Just 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. 

I’d 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’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. 

The 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. 

I was 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. 

One 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 holiday. 

Also 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. 

Back 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.

With 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. 

Andy 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. 

I was 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 performance. 

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. 

So 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.


A big thank you to Pete Evans for the review
Alan White,

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Pete Evans and John Taylor


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