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4th to 7th October 2017
Helena, Arkansas

Helena Levee Wall © Copyright 2008 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.


Review by Pete Evans

The 32nd King Biscuit Festival opened to clear skies with temperatures in the high 80s in the lovely little town of Helena on the banks of the Mississippi river.

The main stage was the only stage to operate on the 1st day and Memphis favourites Mississippi Bigfoot featuring stalwarts of the Memphis scene Doug McMinn on drums, Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms on keys and the outstanding Josh Roberts on guitar got the festival off to a great start with a lively set of mainly covers. The band also featured Vince Johnson on harp and vocals and he excelled on the classics Help Me and Boogie Chillun.

Sonny Burgess was a famous rockabilly guitarist who formed his band The Pacers in 1956 recording for Sam Phillips on Sun records. Sadly he died just two months ago and so his band (whom I believe were all in their 80s) came on stage to give an emotional set in his memory, and how the crowd loved them.

Sterling Billingsley is a regular at the festival and President of the Sonny Boy Blues Society and is a very fine guitarist fronting a band featuring some of The Bigfoot band and a superb vocalist Kim Reteguiz who gave a great rendition of I’d Rather Go Blind.

Chris O’Leary from New York State was lead singer and harp player in local favourite Levon Helm’s band and his band with a great brass section played some great blues with 2nd Time Round a great shuffle.

I didn’t catch trumpeter Rodney Block’s set but I’m told it was very good and included an audience walkabout but I was back to catch a lively set from Joe Louis Walker with the superb Black & Blue (from the CD Everybody Wants a Piece) the standout track. He was also joined on stage on vocals by the amazingly colourful New Orleans character Fillmore Slim.

Tab Benoit headlined the 1st night and was without a doubt, sensational. In the true world of a blues man, the band’s van had broken down on the journey up from Louisiana and so Tab had spent 4 hours under the engine making running repairs before arriving in time, complete with oily fingers to blow the audience away. With his crack rhythm section of the enigmatic Cory Duplechin on bass and Jeff “Jellybean” Alexander on drums, he blasted through a brilliant set of Louisiana swamp blues with Night Train and Nothing Takes The Place Of You the stand out tracks.

The 2nd day sees the festival introducing 4 more stages and it becomes difficult then to cover all of the acts and a selection process then has to take place with new acts taking precedence over acts seen in the past.

After a brief stop at the Front Porch Stage to see the Hendrix of the harmonica, Billy Gibbons, a visit to the Main Stage for Tracy Nelson and her band The Bel Airs. Back in the early 60s she recorded with Charlie Musselwhite then became a part of the San Francisco scene with her iconic band Mother Earth. Her voice was superb but the highlight was when she duetted with Memphis legend Reba Russell...brilliant. Reba and her band then took the stage for their usual top drawer performance.

One of the new young generation of African American blues guitarists Akeem Kemp then gave a great set of self penned numbers and covers on the Lockwood-Stackhouse stage. A name to look out for.

It was saddening to hear that Leo “Bud” Welch was too ill to follow on this stage and I visited him in his manager’s trailer to chat to him and he wasn’t too good. However, guitarist Ric Patton playing Leo’s guitar and rack harp stepped in and gave a great performance playing some of Leo’s numbers and some covers.

The street performers are always a feature of the festival and have a great following including the unusually named but brilliant father and daughter duo Tyrannosaurus Chicken, Snooky Pryor’s son Rip Lee Pryor, Blind Mississippi Morris, Guitar Mac and harp academic Adam Gussow.

Next up on the main stage was the dynamic bundle of energy Nikki Hill who gave a high octane set of powerful, rhythm ‘n’ blues with the soul drenched Strut and I Know You Don’t Love Me No More and Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller the top numbers. Also excellent was Laura Chavez on guitar.

After a brief visit to The Front Porch to see Clarksdale favourite Robert “Bilbo” Walker, there was a delightful set from acoustic guitarist Veronika Jackson on the Lockwood Stackhouse stage. Equally adept on the banjo, the top numbers were Elizabeth Cotton’s Freight Train and Precious Bryant’s I’m Going Home On The Morning Train. Very enjoyable.

The night before the festival there was a function in Helena which recognised the outstanding contribution that Texan legend Anson Funderburgh has made to the festival. He has appeared at every one of the 32 festivals and has to be one of sweetest guitarists ever. With Andy T and Bob Margolin on guitars and Austrian Christian Dozzler on keys and accordion in his band The Rockets, he gave his usual immaculate performance on the main stage.

A mix up in my timings meant that I missed the young acoustic guitarist Jontavious Willis whom I really wanted to see and also veteran soul singer Charles Wilson who played often in the UK around 15 years ago with UK band Mo Indigo however it was at the main stage for the final two acts where in recent years blues influenced Southern rock bands have featured.

First up was festival favourite Paul Thorn and his superb band who combines great song writing with a dry laconic wit. This time his set entitled The Mission Temple Fireworks Revival was more blues and gospel influenced than ever before and featured the McCrary Sisters, four amazing gospel singers. Songs performed included You Gotta Move and Aaron Neville’s Don’t Let The Devil Ride. It was a brilliant show.

The headline act J J Grey and his band Mofro have been described as a Southern blues and soul rock band and were making their 1st appearance at the festival having built up a massive following from their home state of Florida. J J has released 9 albums including 6 on blues label Alligator and featured many of the more popular tracks in an absolutely superb set. Included were Lochloosa, Country Ghetto, Orange Blossoms and the anthemic soulful Brighter Days – oh what I’d have given to have heard Otis Redding sing this brilliant song!

The main stage on the final day opened up with another of the new generation of young African American guitarists with the amazingly talented Marcus “Mookie” Cartwright. Alongside him was veteran Muddy Water’s guitarist Bob Margolin and Robert Kimbrough Sr. and Carla Robinson on bass and together they delivered a great set of blues. The future looks good for the personable young Mookie.

Bob Margolin then stayed on stage to be joined by Billy Flynn unusually on harp, Bob Stroger on bass, Tom Holland on guitar and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums and together they belted out some great Chicago blues.

In the meantime at The Front Porch Stage, I caught short sections of sets by Austin “Walkin” Cane and the wonderful Willie Cobbs before I gained some religious uplifting at the Lockwood Stackhouse stage and became sanctified after listening to the wonderful set by The Rev John Wilkins and his band. It really was wonderful especially with the 3 accompanying gospel singing ladies on the closing Get Right Church and ended with the good Reverend leading prayers at the end of his set.

At the same stage, the famous Burnside name was represented by R L Burnside’s son DuWayne and his band and he did justice to his legendary dad and also to Junior Kimbrough with a cracking version of All Night long. Only criticism.. perhaps too much wah wah pedal.

And so it was to the main stage for the tail end of the set from Andy T Band with Alabama Mike and the final two acts of the festival. The penultimate act was Arkansas native, the ever popular Larry McCray and his band with brother Steven on drums, the eccentric Kerry Clark on bass and Ms Clever on keyboard. During a fantastic set, he was joined by Bob Margolin and then by the lovely 16 year old young lady Erin Coburn who had the audience on their feet with her superb version of The Thrill Is Gone played on an electric ukulele. Another name to watch out for.

The final headliners Government Mule again introduced some blues influenced southern rock with Warren Haynes outstanding on lead guitar and with shades of The Allman Brothers showing through the band gave us superb versions of John The Revelator and Smokestack Lightnin’ before being joined on stage by Larry McCray and Bob Margolin for a fantastic four track finale. A great end to a great festival.

Once again, it must be said that this really is a brilliant blues festival but a festival is only as good as the people who work so hard to make it a success and so a big thank you to the many dedicated volunteers and helpers from Helena and Arkansas. I’m already looking forward to the 33rd festival. 

Pete Evans



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© Copyright 2017 Pete Evans. All Rights Reserved.
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