Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce used to be famous for his yard parties, but in recent years he had stopped doing them after some health issues. So when his daughter Sherena informed me that he was having a yard party with live musicians on a Wednesday evening, I made arrangements to get off early from work and head to Como.
The weather was sunny when I arrived at R. L.’s house just across the railroad tracks from Como’s restored downtown area. A cool breeze was blowing, and only a few people had gathered, although the event was supposed to begin at 4 PM. Boyce, Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, and Lightnin Malcolm were on the front porch setting up their equipment, and the drummer Steve Toney was setting up his drums in the yard because there was no room for them on the porch.
When the music got under way, the atmosphere became magical, with Malcolm, Carlos and R.L. playing Hill Country blues in the kind of setting it was intended for, an outdoor house party. One of the out-of-town guests sent someone to purchase hotdogs and charcoal, and fired up Boyce’s grill, cooking hotdogs for the guests and musicians, some of whom were in Mississippi for the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival, which was to be held on the weekend. Soon the crowd in R.L.’s front yard grew larger, with young and old, local and out-of-town folks. A few kids were playing under the trees. As the evening continued, some folks began to dance, and cars slowed down as they drove past the house, trying to see what was going on. After a number of songs from R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, there was a guest appearance from the hot new female blues singer Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones from Potts Camp, and she performed a couple of her original songs with the band. Eventually, around 8 PM, the sun went down, and with no real lighting in R.L.’s yard, things had to come to a halt. Only a handful of people remained at that point, and Sherena Boyce and I decided to head uptown to Windy City Grill for a late dinner, but we could hear R.L. still playing guitar as he sat on his porch in the dark. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of night.
At one time, finding anything other than fast food was something of a challenge in New Albany, Mississippi. While upscale eateries opened in Oxford, Tupelo and even Como, New Albany was largely behind, but that has recently begun to change, around the time that the Tanglefoot Trail was opened for hiking and biking, spawning a coffee bar and eventually redevelopment of New Albany’s downtown.
The Bankhead Bicycle Club takes its name from New Albany’s main business street, Bankhead, named for an Alabama senator who was instrumental in getting Highway 78 built between Memphis and Birmingham (the famous actress Tallulah Bankhead was the daughter of the senator in question). On our recent visit, despite the late hour, the place was fairly crowded, including a large group that were visiting the area from North Carolina. The restaurant offers both pizzas and hamburgers, but we opted for burgers and were fairly impressed. I opted for the BBC Bomber, a burger with white cheddar and crumbled maple bacon, which provided a degree of sweetness. It came on a square ciabatta bun, and was quite delicious, as were the french fries that came with it. My friend ordered the same , and said she was pleased as well. Service was prompt and efficient, and the fairly-dark surroundings were comfortable and pleasant. An after-dinner key lime pie dessert was the perfect ending to the evening. Bankhead Bicycle Club will definitely see us again.
Bankhead Bicycle Club
108 W Bankhead St
New Albany, MS 38652
For several years, Clarksdale has had a full-scale coffee bar called Yazoo Pass, but at this year’s Juke Joint Festival I was surprised to see that another coffee bar had opened, a place called Meraki Roasting Company. The space on Sunflower at Second next to the Delta Cinema is a spacious, bright and comfortable oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the Juke Joint Festival, which is Clarksdale’s biggest day. As it turns out, Meraki is an arm of the Griot Youth Program, a non-profit which seeks to intervene in Clarksdale by guiding young people into a number of worthwhile careers and pastimes, including, now, coffee-roasting. The shop has bean varieties from Ethiopia and Colombia, cups of coffee available by French Press or pour-over method, and a number of sweet and savory baked goods, as well as gelato from highly-acclaimed Sweet Magnolia which is also made in Clarksdale. What with the rainy weather this year, Meraki was a great place to get dry, unwind, relax, recharge our phones and ourselves, and enjoy exquisite coffees. And in the process, it’s cool to know that we were helping Clarksdale young people as well.
Meraki Roasting Company
282 Sunflower Avenue
Clarksdale, MS 38614
A good day starts with a good breakfast, but during Juke Joint Festival, everything is extremely crowded, and breakfast choices in Clarksdale are very limited. But this year a new breakfast place had opened in downtown Clarksdale called Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes, and although it was crowded, I was able to get right in and get a table. I ordered a bacon and cheese omelette, hashbrowns, toast and coffee, and although it all took a while to come out considering the crowd, the food was really good indeed. All the while, a female blues singer and a guitarist were performing outside the front door on Third Street. Apparently, at night, the space next door becomes a blues club with live musicians, so on a future visit to Clarksdale, I will have to check that out. But Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes is a welcome addition to what has been a breakfast-challenged city.
Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes
115 3rd St
Clarksdale, MS 38614
Each year, Clarksdale becomes the center of attention in the blues world, as fans come from all over the world for the Juke Joint Festival. Although the official festival is only one day, events surrounding it now stretch over four days, and hotels are sold out for more than 75 miles in any direction. Unfortunately, this year, for the first time in memory, the festival was adversely affected by wet weather, showers that continued for much of the morning and early afternoon. Nevertheless, there were still significant crowds at many of the stages, and by the afternoon, the showers had begun to exit the area. In addition to the vendors of artwork, cigar-box guitars, books and more, attendees enjoyed performances by Lightnin Malcolm, the Cedric Burnside Project, Carlos Elliot, the Andre Otha Evans Fife and Drum Band, Garry Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, R. L. Boyce and many other performers from the Hill Country, the Delta, South America, Europe and other parts of the United States. This year also saw a larger number of stages and participating venues. One unfortunate trend this year however was the tendency of local restaurants to offer special, highly-limited menus for guests because of the Juke Joint Festival. We found that as a result, we often could not order what we wanted, and had to settle for things like burgers. I suppose the goal was to make things easier on the kitchen staff, but it ended up making things harder or at least less pleasant for the attendees. Still, it was a day of good music and good fun.
Although Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is technically only a one-day festival, the events surrounding it run over the course of four days. This year on Friday night the center of attention was Bluesberry Cafe, which featured performances by Duwayne Burnside and his band, followed by Colombian Hill Country musician Carlos Elliot Jr and Como legend R. L. Boyce. Despite the small stage, they were joined by Boyce’s daughter Sherena (a juke joint dancer) and Joyce Jones, the newest female voice in Hill Country blues. Despite the heavy rain outside, there was a significant crowd in the venue, and everyone had a great time.
After a debut festival last year in March, this year the Foxfire Blues Festival moved to April, and one of the highlights of this year’s event was the reunion of Lightnin Malcolm and Cedric Burnside, two Hill Country blues musicians that began their careers together, but ended up going their separate ways, Cedric into the highly successful Cedric Burnside Project with Trenton Ayers, son of the Hill Country guitarist Little Joe Ayers. Both musicians were in rare form, and they seemed to enjoy the collaboration, each including songs from their old career together, as well as songs from their solo careers since. As both men play guitar and drums, it was easy for them to switch instruments for each other, and the results were magical. The Foxfire Blues Festival kicks off the blues season at Foxfire Ranch, which is located on Old Oxford Road just outside the small village of Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County on Highway 7. From April until probably September, live blues will be held at the Hill Country Blues Pavilion on Sundays from 5-10 PM. Admission is usually $10, and worth every penny of it.
A few years ago, the Commercial Appeal newspaper compared Memphis to Austin in an article, a rather strange and forced comparison perhaps, despite the fact that both are music cities. When it comes to business, economy and culture, the two cities are nothing alike, but Memphis often seems envious of the kind of weirdness and success that Austin seems to represent. At any rate, over the last year, Memphis has witnessed the opening of two music venues that resemble the way things are done in Austin, Loflin Yard and now Railgarten. The similarities between them prove to be more than coincidence, as some of the same people are involved with both.
Anyone who has visited Austin during South By Southwest has probably been to Amy’s Ice Cream or the 24 Diner, both of which are located next to Waterloo Records at the central intersection of 6th and Lamar near downtown, and the developers of Railgarten seem to have patterned their location as a merger of Amy’s, 24 Diner and an outdoor-type music venue such as Austin’s Container Bar. The decision is an inspiring one indeed. First of all, Railgarten offers great food in their diner, breakfast items at certain hours, and gourmet burgers, including the one I had with a fried egg on top for good measure. Next door to that is an ice-cream parlor, that features homemade milkshakes as well. There is a ping-pong parlor in a building to the east, outside a volleyball court, and a lawn with fire-pits, as well as an outdoor stage made of shipping containers which incorporates the Skateland “Roller Skate For Health” neon sign from the legendary Summer Avenue skating rink of long ago. A food truck provides eats and snacks for those enjoying the outdoor music. All told, the fairly-large complex offers something for everyone.
ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, after my visit, all kinds of trouble broke out for this place. Local code enforcement, responding to complaints from the residential neighborhood north of the restaurant, hit Railgarten with “Do Not Occupy” warnings in April because of their use of shipping containers (despite the fact that the area is zoned industrial), and because they allegedly did not have a permit for live music. Further complaints to the Board of Adjustment stated that Railgarten did not have sufficient parking for a venue of its size. (It is worth noting that Austin did not have a problem with the Container Bar using shipping containers as part of its permanent building). As a result of the controversy, the backyard at Railgarten remains closed during a City Council-mandated 30-day delay before the Board of Adjustment can make a ruling as to whether it can reopen. The diner, ping-pong hall and ice cream parlor remain open under curtailed hours.
2166 Central Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
Do-it-yourself pizza boutiques using the “Subway” model have become all the rage recently, and they seem to be popping up everywhere in and around Memphis. From the days when Pyro’s was the only game in town, we have Pizza Rev in East Memphis and Rise Pies in Southaven and now Pizza Social in Bartlett. On a recent visit, I was impressed with the atmosphere and decor of Pizza Social. It is bigger than Pyro’s and has more table space, as well as an outdoor patio area. The prices are about a dollar higher for pizzas, but there are more topping options, and I was altogether happier with my pizza. Of course there are trade-offs. Pizza Social does not have the cool Coca-Cola Freestyle machine that Pyro’s has, opting for a regular drink fountain such as you might see in a convenience store, nor do they have the large selection of local beers or artisan coffee drinks that Pyro’s features. But for convenience, shorter lines and more satisfying pizza, Pizza Social will continue to be my go-to when I want pizza in the future.
3000 Kirby-Whitten Rd
Bartlett, TN 38134
Despite its relatively small size, Tupelo often feels like Mississippi’s “other city”, with its large airport, zoo, arena, downtown and vast array of retail, restaurants and hotels.So it really isn’t surprising that Tupelo has seen a burst of new restaurant activity of late. That being said, nothing quite prepared me for the shear brilliance of Forklift, a New American restaurant that specializes in gourmet twists on Southern comfort foods. A check of the menu shows inspired creations like the “Bay of Pigs” (Cuban sandwich made with pulled pork) or “Clucks and Waffles”, a gourmet take on the African-American tradition of chicken and waffles.
On our recent visit, we were immediately impressed with the decor and ambiance of the restaurant. Forklift features a big city atmosphere that would not be out of place in New Orleans, Memphis or Jackson. It also features an outdoor patio, complete with fire-pit, that nonetheless is roofed and feels more like a part of the main dining room rather than outdoors. We chose a comfortable seat there, and when things began to get chilly after sunset, the fire-pit was started and we were quite content.
I opted for the Steak & Frites, a dish that I have enjoyed at other restaurants, but Forklift’s take on it is quite different. Sirloin is a cut of meat that can often be tough, but this steak was cooked using a sous vide method, and was as tender as a filet mignon. It was arranged on the plate in slices and looked to my friend somewhat like beef brisket. It was as delicious as any steak I have ever tried. The “frites” it came with were hand-cut fries, and were equally good.
My friend opted for the “Pork Deluxe” which is a “burger” made from ground pork rather than ground beef. It came with bacon, cheese and a tomato onion jam, but proved to be too much for her to finish at one sitting, and she took a to-go box for the rest of it.
We left feeling that Forklift is the kind of restaurant that people would expect to find in the biggest cities, and that Tupelo is fortunate to have such a place. We hope that it will be here for many years to come.
1103 W Jackson St
Tupelo, MS 38804