Juke Joint Fest weekend in Clarksdale is generally rain-free, but the last couple of years have been an exception. 2017 was a complete wash-out, and this year was harassed by rain, but not quite as bad as the year before. With a day of free music on five-or-so stages, not including informal pop-up performances around downtown, the festival is a surfeit of great blues and roots music, and the only real dilemma is choosing between equally great bands on different stages at the same time. The one stage that consistently features the best in Mississippi blues is the stage in front of Roger Stolle’s landmark Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Stolle is the big mover and shaker behind the Juke Joint Festival, as he is with all things blues in Clarksdale, and his store is a mandatory first stop for the first-time blues tourist in the Mississippi Delta, offering books, magazines, DVD’s, vinyl records, compact discs, posters and homemade folk art, including priceless works by Super Chikan himself. The stage in front of the store started early this year with Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs, and as the day progressed featured such Hill Country artists as Kent Burnside, David Kimbrough, Andre Evans and the Sons of Otha fife and drum band, R. L. Boyce, Robert Kimbrough Sr and Duwayne Burnside. The rain ended about noon, but then heavy winds blasted through downtown Clarksdale, and soon the whole downtown area was without power. But the musicians in front of Cat Head managed to salvage something from the afternoon, with an informal jam session featuring Duwayne, R. L. Boyce, David Kimbrough and others. Kesha Burton, a young woman from Brownsville, Tennessee that Boyce and Willie Hurt have been mentoring got an opportunity to play the bass drum with Otha Evans, and the drum set during the acoustic jam session during the power outage. Despite difficulties, it was a satisfying day of blues indeed.
Robert Palmer’s movie and book “Deep Blues” was instrumental in introducing the world to the Hill Country Blues style and its stars, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, so it is totally appropriate that the annual Deep Blues Festival is held in Mississippi, in the holy pilgrimage site of blues known as Clarksdale. With events spanning a full weekend at two historic venues in the area, the Shack Up Inn and the New Roxy, the Deep Blues Festival is a great opportunity to hear some of the remaining greats of authentic Mississippi blues, and the generation of young musicians that have been influenced by them.
The New Roxy is the scene for most of the roots blues acts, and it is itself an amazing venue. Formerly a theatre in Clarksdale’s Black business district, known as the New World District, the Roxy had been abandoned and lost its roof many years ago. It was assumed that the building was doomed, but then the current owners acquired it, and rather than putting a new roof on it, conceived it as an outdoor courtyard and music venue. Restoring the front rooms has given the Roxy both indoor and outdoor space, and it has become a favorite location for live music in pleasant weather.
On the first night of the Deep Blues Festival, the New Roxy was packed with people. The Kimbrough Brothers, consisting of Robert, David and Kinney Kimbrough, three sons of the late Junior Kimbrough, were just coming off stage as we arrived. They were followed by an amazing all-star line-up of R. L. Boyce and his daughter Sherena, Lightnin Malcolm and T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud on the drums, which filled the dance floor up in front of the small indoor stage at the front of the venue. After them, Clarksdale native Jimbo Mathus appeared with his band on the big outdoor stage, performing songs primarily from his most recent release Dark Night of the Soul. We also briefly rode around to Levon’s Bar and Grill, where the Space Cowboy and his blues band were on stage.
There was also live music at the Shack Up Inn, the former Hopson Plantation to the south of Clarksdale along Highway 49, but the acts on that schedule leaned more toward rock, and we did not head out there. Altogether it was a fun night of blues and food.
My lady friend had never been to the Mississippi Coast even though she is from Mississippi, so during our weekend in New Orleans, I made plans for us to drive over to the coast for the afternoon on Saturday, and we stopped first in Pass Christian, a town that had been almost completely destroyed in Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Progress has been slow, but the community is springing back to life, and nowhere is that more evident than with the opening of a number of restaurants, shops and a hotel in the downtown and harbor areas. Of particular interest is a sleek, modernistic coffee bar called Cat Island Coffeehouse, which is actually attached to an independent bookstore called Pass Christian Books, sitting on the hill in Pass Christian’s downtown with an amazing view of the Gulf of Mexico and the marina and harbor. Coffee, books and waterfront views are three of my favorite things in life, so finding them all in one place is thrilling, to say the least. The mocha latte I ordered was terrific, and the selection of books, particularly those about Mississippi and the Civil Rights Movement, were excellent as well. The coffeehouse also offers wine and small food items, and with comfortable couches and chairs, large picture windows and a breezy, outdoor deck, makes an excellent place to look out over the Gulf or to enjoy an evening sunset. On this particular day, full of clear blues skies, and sunshine, we could see the vague outline of Cat Island on the horizon where the sea and sky met. I could have spent far too much money in Pass Christian Books/Cat Island Coffeehouse, but I limited myself to one book, and we headed on our way toward Gulfport. But this first visit will not be our last.
Cat Island Coffeehouse/Pass Christian Books
300 East Scenic Drive
Pass Christian, MS 39571
It was a rainy Monday night, and a work night at that, and I was tired and not feeling like doing much of anything. But my friend texted me and said that her dad, R. L. Boyce, had been asked to play a yard party in Taylor, Mississippi with Luther Dickinson, and that we needed to take him there. So we picked R. L. up in Como and made our way through some pretty significant storms to Oxford, and then out along the Old Taylor Road heading to Taylor. The site for the porch party happened to be a beautiful, rambling old house belonging to Jane Rule Burdine, a photographer originally from the Delta who was also a former mayor of Taylor. The house was full of books, about every conceivable Southern subject. There were many books about Mississippi, and many books about William Faulkner, who of course is something of a big deal to Lafayette Countians. Although the reason for the occasion was never stated, the party featured a number of musicians, writers and film makers, including blues/indie musicians Lightnin Malcolm and Luther Dickinson, and Birdman Records owner David Katznelson. Although rain precluded any kind of playing on the front porch, the house also had a back porch which was fully enclosed, and there Lightnin Malcolm, Luther Dickinson and R. L. Boyce set up to begin playing. The small crowd gathered on the back porch to hear a couple of hours of the best Hill Country blues, while thunder and lightning raged outside. My cousin Al Morse, who lives in Taylor came over to hear the musicians, and to my great surprise, my other cousin Reilly Morse, her dad, also showed up, as he had been visiting in Oxford and Taylor. One of R.L.’s friends had come from Como to join us, and the party showed no signs of winding down at midnight, so my friend and I decided to leave and go home, since both of us had to be at work early the next day. All the same, it was a whole lot of fun on a Monday evening.
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.
I usually spend the Friday before Grambling Homecoming shopping, searching for Grambling memorabilia and ephemera, as well as records and books. But this year, rather than spending the day in antique malls in West Monroe, where in recent years the pickings have been slim, I decided to head over to Shreveport and Bossier City instead, which somewhat proved to be a mistake. I had eaten breakfast at a downtown Monroe restaurant called The Kitchen, and had assumed because it wasn’t raining in Monroe that it wouldn’t be raining in Shreveport. Instead, the rain started in rather heavy at Ruston, and got worse the further west I went. As it turned out, I was dealing with heavy downpours almost the entire day in Shreveport. I spent the day visiting several antique malls, book shops, the new Day Old Records store (which hadn’t existed the last time I was in Shreveport) and flea markets. But the rain made things difficult, and I failed to find anything really of interest. Worse, a lot of familiar landmarks that I knew and loved in Shreveport were long gone, including Murrell’s, Joe’s Diner, Garland’s Super Sounds and Lakeshore All Around Sounds. Don’s Steak and Seafood was abandoned and about to be torn down. However, when I learned that there was an exhibit at Artspace downtown that was honoring Stan Lewis, the owner of Stan’s Record Shops and the Jewel/Paula/Ronn family of record labels, I headed over there to check it out. Actually, a museum was a decent place to be on such a wet and rainy day, and I ended up purchasing a Jewel/Paula/Ronn T-shirt from the museum’s gift shop. As I headed down Texas Street, I came past the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, where the State Fair of Louisiana was going on despite the rain, and across the street at Fair Park High School, the marching band was marching around the school building performing, and traffic was temporarily stopped in all directions. I wasn’t sure if it was a special event due to the fair, or whether it was something that happens every Friday at the school. Unfortunately, the nearby Dunn’s Flea Market, where I often used to find Grambling memorabilia, was closed, presumably due to the rain.
One bright spot in an otherwise dull and depressing day was that the former Smith’s Cross Lake Inn had been reopened by new owners under a different name, Port-au-Prince. This had been my favorite restaurant in Shreveport for many years, before it closed abruptly and was boarded up. The new restaurant has a beautiful setting and decor, but the menu is a little more low-end than its predecessors. The emphasis is on catfish, and while a filet mignon remains on the menu, most of the small crowd that was there ordered the catfish, as I did. For the most part, I was pleased with the food. The catfish was excellent, and the strangely sweet french fries, while unusual, grew on me with time. What I didn’t particularly like was the restaurant’s policy of giving everyone hush puppies, bean soup, cole slaw and pickles, whether they want any of those things or not. Still, the overall experience was positive, and the view of the lake cannot be beat. My dinner there cheered me greatly.
Afterwards, I headed by a new place called Lakeshore Clothing and Music, which indeed had a decent selection of rap and blues compact discs as well as clothing, and then I made one last stop at Rhino Coffee, a cheerful coffee bar on Southfield Road that also did not exist the last time I was in Shreveport. The breve latte they made for me was delicious as I headed back east on I-20.
When I got to Grambling, the rain had stopped, at least temporarily, and I stopped at an outdoor stand and bought a couple of Grambling T-shirts and a Grambling jacket. I made a drive around the campus, where there was actually something of a crowd out and about, taking advantage of the lull in the rain. But there didn’t seem to be a whole lot going on, and I could not get in touch with my friend, Dr. Reginald Owens, so I headed on back to Monroe. The rain had started again, and I ended up going to the hotel room and to bed.
It was an absolutely gorgeous, warm afternoon, and a lady friend and I decided to head down to Oxford, Mississippi for dinner, a browse in my favorite bookstore and perhaps dessert. It’s not uncommon for us to go to Oxford, but on this evening, we discovered something new, a boutique hotel called the Graduate, which has opened on the site of the old Oxford Inn on North Lamar, a block or so from the square. As a hotel, the Graduate, with about 9 stories or so, looks like something straight out of Miami’s South Beach, but what attracted us was a rooftop bar and grill called The Coop. The Coop is an elegant space, with indoor and outdoor seating, but in warm weather, the outdoor deck is the better choice, with its panoramic view of Oxford. As my friend and I entered, a recording of Junior Kimbrough was playing overhead, a good omen indeed. We were seated on the outdoor deck at a table, while the sun slowly set in the west over the town, an experience that really isn’t even available in Memphis. My friend enjoyed an appetizer and a glass of wine. The big thing at The Coop is sliders, which come 2 to an order. There are 9 types of sliders, including the standard hamburger type. They’re not particularly expensive, either, and delicious. The Coop also has truffle fries, and they come in a cup with parmesan cheese. Also quite delicious. Service proved to be prompt and cheerful, and the food good, despite the somewhat limited menu. And it’s worth it for the unprecedented vistas. From up there, Oxford seems like some romantic resort town. And perhaps that’s the point.
Downstairs, the lobby of the hotel is also decorative and beautiful. The desk simulates bookshelves, with hundreds of bookspines, complete with authors and titles worked into the design. The lamps around the desk are globes of the world, complete with country details. Faulknerian art work hangs on the walls. But off the lobby is another restaurant choice, Cabin 82, which is primarily a coffee bar, despite offering a limited menu of breakfast and chicken biscuits. Their breve lattes are absolutely delicious, and although Oxford does have other coffee bars, it is conveniently located for those who have had dinner at The Coop.
This year’s closure of Morning Bell Records was a terrible blow to Jackson, Mississippi’s music scene, so the news that a new record shop had opened in Jackson was welcome. But Offbeat Arts, the new venture from adventurous Jacktown DJ Young Venom is not exactly a record store in the ordinary sense, and what it is might at first seem confusing. It is (all at the same time) an art gallery, a record shop, a clothing store, a book store and a performance space. When I visited for the first time the weekend of the Core DJ’s Retreat, it was hosting a video shoot for local hip-hop artist Jaxx City. Its vinyl selection isn’t huge, but leans toward the funky, hip and less familiar side of the spectrum, and as might be expected, there’s a decent selection of local artists and releases (but not much in the way of CD’s, so be forewarned). There are also books about hip-hop and Black culture, comic books, local Jackson clothing gear, and beautiful local art. Occasionally, on weekends, Offbeat becomes a performance space for various DJ-based genres of music, which is appropriate, as the shop sits in the middle of Jackson’s burgeoning Midtown Arts District. When visiting, it’s probably a good idea to call ahead, as some days Offbeat is open by appointment only, and the opening hours seem to vary and be a little sporadic. That being said, Offbeat is as cool as store as I’ve seen anywhere in the South.
I knew that live music went on at Brinson’s in downtown Memphis, but it had been years since I had been there, so when I read that the Concrete Soul Band would be playing there, I decided to drive down and check it out. Concrete Soul proved to be a very funky, tight band, playing both smooth jazz and some neo-soul, and after the intermission, we got a special surprise as former Memphian Arean Alston came on stage to perform. Alston had been in Memphis all week, and had performed elsewhere, but it was great to see her in the city again.
Although I was in St. Louis for a Recording Academy event, the event wasn’t until the evening, so I had the better part of the day to go around to local book stores and record stores, and St. Louis is really a dream come true to anyone who collects books or records. As the day progressed, I made my way around to Left Bank Books, the Book House, STL Books, Vintage Vinyl and Euclid Records, the last of which was only a couple of doors down from where our event was being held.