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4th to 6th October 2018
Helena, Arkansas

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


Review by Pete Evans

With temperatures in the mid 90s all week with added humidity, this year’s King Biscuit Festival in the little town of Helena on the banks of the Mississippi river in Arkansas was a tough one to cover with six stages on the Friday and Saturday.

On the opening Thursday it was only the main stage presenting music. I sadly missed the opening band The Oxford All Stars Band who were winners of the International Blues Challenge in Memphis and I heard were excellent. Festival mainstay Stirling Billingsley and his band gave their usual competent mix of covers before Heavy Suga and The Sweetones featuring the superb vocals of bassist Heather Crosse delivered a cracking set including Etta James’ “Damn Your Eyes”.

New Orleans guitarist Keith Stone with his band Red Gravy gave us some slick N’Awlins grooves before Rick Estrin and his Nightcats presented tracks from his excellent new cd Groovin’ In Greaseland. They’d cleaned up at this year’s Blues Music Awards in Memphis winning Best Band, Best Song and Best Traditional Blues Artist and they certainly gave us a slick show with Norwegian transplant Kid Andersen showing why he is regarded so highly.

One of the stars of the weekend was undoubtedly John Nemeth and his incredibly tight band. Idaho born but now a Memphis resident, his excellent harp playing and superb vocals were matched by the brilliance of Matthew Wilson on lead guitar and a great brass section. Stand out was his chromatic playing on the slow blues number “Blues in my Heart”

Then there was Bobby Rush... what more can be said about this legend that hasn’t already been said?! Presenting his full show with all of its politically incorrect sexual nuances he had the audience eating out of his hands. Just a few days short of his 85th birthday he had the energy of a man of half his age and his band as usual were superb.

The next day saw the other stages come into play and so it’s always difficult to choose who to see and with the temperature and humidity even affecting the locals, charging around from stage to stage just wasn’t going to happen!

Surprisingly, the 1st act we saw was British when excellent Bath based veteran guitarist Kevin Brown appeared on The Quicksand Stage. Kevin, who in his youth received some tuition by Son House, spends 5/6 weeks in Clarksdale every year and gave a superb set which was warmly received by the audience.

This was followed by a visit to the Lockwood/Stackhouse stage for a touch of great north Mississippi hill country blues from Robert Kimbrough Sr the son of legendary Junior Kimborough. Playing with a really tight band which featured guitarist Jesse Cotton Stone they paid their dues to Junior on his classic “All Night Long”.

A quick visit then to the main stage to see Memphis blues queen and darling of the crowd, Reba Russell give her usual superb show. She’d earlier sang a moving tearful a capella song dedicated to the legendary Radio KFFA, King Biscuit Time dj “Sunshine” Sonny Payne who’d passed away in February aged 92.

The Front Porch Stage is set in a room of The Delta Cultural Centre which probably seats no more than 100 people but it was here that most of the true African/American blues was staged. I’d caught the end of husband and wife guitarist and vocalist Johnie B and Iretta Sanders from Jackson Mississippi before 82 year old Earl “The Pearl” Banks from Memphis took the stage. This was his 1st visit to the festival despite being a regular on the Memphis scene for many years. Playing mainly covers like “Dust My Broom” and “Crosscut Saw” he gave us a great show.

Staying put at The Front Porch Stage, 67 year old Soul/Blues singer from Hattiesburg Mississippi Johnny Rawls gave a wonderful set of silky smooth soul with his superb voice and was arguably one of the best vocalists of the weekend.

A visit was then made to the Lockwood stage to see Charles “Skeet” Rodgers and The Inner City Blues Band from St Louis. Another great soulful blues set complete with brass and female backing vocals even managed to get some people dancing in the heat.

A visit to the Cedell Davis stage for the first time caught the hugely talented Jesse Cotton Stone and later on, one of the stars of the weekend, 65 year old Robert Finley. This lovely man was only discovered a few years ago after retiring from his joinery business due to failing eyesight. He had sung for years in bars and clubs near his home in Bernice Louisiana and was helped by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a non profit organisation that helps elderly musicians in getting their music heard. Following on from his successful first cd in 2016 on Big Legal Mess records, “Age Don’t Mean a Thing” and particularly the title track, he came to the attention of Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys who helped produce his next cd, “Goin’ Platinum” in December 2017. He has an amazing soulful blues voice and most of his songs are throw backs to 60s soul and were delivered brilliantly backed by his young band. The exciting news for the UK is that he will be appearing in London, Leeds and Manchester in November – I strongly recommend you see him.

It was then back to the main stage for some brilliant southern rock influenced Americana  from Paul Thorn and his superb band. From Tupelo Mississippi Paul has a near cult following at this festival with his infectious humour and songs about everyday southern life.

Classic titles like “Pimps and Preachers” about his father a Pentecostal preacher and his uncle who was a pimp get the whole crowd joining in along with “Burn Down the Trailer Park” and “What The Hell is Going On”

I’m afraid that headliners on the main stage Blackberry Smoke are as near to the blues as Black Sabbath and whilst as a rock band they are very good and indeed many fans loved them, but by the same token, many didn’t. After 3 numbers we departed. As someone who has organised 23 festivals I can understand the need to get bums on seats but I don’t think a rock band at a blues festival is the answer.

On the final day, the first act to see on the main stage, flying the flag for the UK, was the Reading based Backbone Blues Band. These hard working lads self finance themselves on a deep south tour most years, taking in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Clarksdale and Helena. This hadn’t gone unnoticed by the festival organisers and despite lead singer Duncan Highet having vocal problems due to a virus, they gave a cracking account of themselves and gained many new fans.

As on the second day, most of the afternoon was spent at The Front Porch Stage where all the acts were African American, many of whom were not that well known. Having said that, it did not detract from the quality of the music.

The last 10 minutes of Robert Finley’s second appearance was caught before Sweet Angel and her band took to the stage. Again, another great surprise. From Memphis, she has been compared with Tina Turner, Dinah Washington and Denise LaSalle with her superb soulful voice. The difference is that she also leads the band from the front blasting out great alto saxophone.

Next up was 80 year old guitarist Millage Gilbert from Kansas City (who has been seen in the past in the UK at the famous Breakdown Blues Club nr Peterborough). A lovely easy guitarist, he played some beautiful traditional, straight from the heart blues. A real treat.

A great 45 minutes was then spent in the company of 73 year old guitarist Clarence “Bluesman” Davis 55 year old Jock Webb on harp both from Alabama. They have been prominent in the Alabama blues world for years and they gave a great set of classic covers joined on drums on some numbers by Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith.

Helena native saxophonist Phillip Stackhouse gave a great set of sax drenched blues backed by a very tight band. He is the grandson of the legendary Houston Stackhouse and it was to the stage that bears his name alongside that of Robert Jr Lockwood that we then went to hear Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood. This Jackson Mississippi guitarist is the great nephew of the legendary Tommy Johnson and his music incorporates a unique blend of country blues and soul blues and a little traditional folk. He too has performed at Breakdown Blues Club and also at Goin’ Up the Country Blues Club in Worthenbury, north Wales when he played with The Hokum Hotshots.

Another visit to the Cedell Davis stage produced another new name  - Deidra from Alabama. Possessing  a great powerful soulful voice behind an excellent tight unit, The Ruff Pro Blues Band, she also got everyone dancing despite the heat.

There are many great artists playing on Cherry Street, the main street behind the stage and a great set were heard from acoustic trio from Jonesboro, The Arkansas Brothers. Also playing was regular Guitar Mac, father and daughter Tyrannosaurus Chicken who are great favourites and regular UK visitor The Reverend Robert.

A trip to the main stage then to finish the day caught a very good set from Hamilton Loomis who appears regularly in the UK and finished with his usual “Bow Wow” encore however it was Austin,Texas guitarist Carolyn Wonderland that I wanted to see particularly since it was announced that she was to be the next, and first female, guitarist to be asked to play in the legendary Bluesbreakers with John Mayall. She was absolutely brilliant delivering superb guitar, be it conventional or lap steel as she did on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. Another standout was “Come Together” a track she wrote with fellow Texan Ruthie Foster. She will be touring the UK with John Mayall next spring so it will be worth checking her out.

Final act of the festival was an unusual choice and again had very little to do with blues. Steve Cropper from down the road in Memphis needed no introduction as Stax Records legendary soul guitarist however many Americans were heard to ask who Dave Mason was. After his early success with English 60s band Traffic he moved to the USA and made his name mainly with his song writing and playing with bands like Delaney and Bonnie. They have teamed to present a Rock and Soul Revue that has been touring the USA this year. Backed by Mason’s US band with the excellent Tony Patler adding vocals as well as keyboard and Gretchen Rhodes on vocals they moved between Stax classics “The Dock of the Bay”, “Green Onions” and “Knock on Wood” to “Only You Know and I Know”, “Dear Mr Fantasy” and “Can’t Find My Way Home” to an encore of “All Along The Watchtower”, the Hendrix classic on which Mason had played.

It turned out be a very pleasant wander down memory lane for many of those present of a certain age and, whilst as I said it had nothing to do with blues, it was great to see everyone up dancing and reminiscing of the 60s and early 70s.

Again many thanks must go to the friendly, hard working organisers and volunteers who work tirelessly to make this event so enjoyable and even though the main stage line-up was not up to the standard of previous years in my opinion with too many acts appearing year on and perhaps moving away from the blues, the other stages more than compensated with some excellent lesser known blues acts. There were a number of acts that I’d liked to have seen but timings and the heat made it impossible but overall, it was a great three days.



Website, Photos & Text © Copyright 2000-2018 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
This Section: Photos (except Helena Levee Wall) and Text
© Copyright 2018 Pete Evans. All Rights Reserved.
Helena Levee Wall photo © Copyright 2008 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
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