My last stop of the evening was to see Lightnin Malcolm at the Juke Joint ChapelJuke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn complex at Hopson Plantation, just outside of Clarksdale. But the venue is always crowded, and it isn’t always easy to get a good view of the stage unless you get there early. Also, by the time I arrived out there, I was exhausted, so I caught Malcolm’s first set of songs, and then I headed back to Memphis. All in all, despite the rain, wind and power outages, it was a great Juke Joint Festival this year.
When I left Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, I headed out to Pete’s Grill on Sunflower Avenue to catch the Duwayne Burnside and David Kimbrough performance. Pete’s is another juke joint in Clarksdale that generally has live music only during the Juke Joint Festival, but it is a perfect venue for live blues, just a block or so from the legendary Riverside Hotel. Unfortunately, the performance started late, as the musicians were waiting for someone to arrive with an amp or microphone, and the first set only involved Duwayne Burnside, as David Kimbrough was nowhere to be seen. Of course Duwayne is one of Mississippi’s most gifted blues performers, so it was still an enjoyable show, and I heard that later, after I had left, that David did show up and perform with Duwayne. But Lightnin’ Malcolm was performing out at the Shack Up Inn, so I decided to head out there and see if I could catch him.
Blues veteran Hezekiah Early is associated with Natchez, Mississippi, and with the towns on the other side of the river, like St. Joseph and Ferriday, Louisiana. Folklorist David Evans was involved with a couple of albums made by Early’s band Hezekiah and the Houserockers, but his earliest roots were in Black fife and drum music, a genre that we usually associate with parts of Mississippi further to the north. Nevertheless, the influence of the fife and drum style can be clearly heard in much of Hezekiah’s drumset work. Since the 1990’s, Early has been working in duos with musicians such as Elmo Williams and Fayette, Mississippi-based Robert “Poochie” Watson, with whom he cut the Broke-and-Hungry Records release Natchez Burning. This latter duo was the one that appeared this year at the Juke Joint Festival, performing at a new venue called Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, which was a small but cozy venue that set a most appropriate atmosphere for the music. Early and Watson’s style is a soulful, rhythm & blues-influenced one that owes much to New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. Although the venue was not particularly crowded when they began playing, it soon filled up to capacity. Their performance was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
Natchez bluesman Y. Z. Ealey is 81-years old this May, and is a brother of the much better-known Southern Soul artist Theodis Ealey, of “Stand Up In It” fame. Y. Z., Theodis and their brother Melwyn were all blues musicians from the town of Sibley, Mississippi, just outside of Natchez, but Y. Z. has largely been a factory worker who plays music more as an avocation. Given the extent to which we have been losing our elder statesmen of blues over the last several years, I was determined to catch Ealey’s performance in Clarksdale at this year’s Juke Joint Festival. So I made my way to the Coahoma Collective , which had formerly been Ms. Del’s General Store, where Ealey performed in the courtyard with his band. His style is a swamp-pop infused style which demonstrates the fact that Louisiana is merely across the river from Natchez, and his current band features some younger musicians, and on this occasion, a clarinetist. But Ealey is still in fine form and voice, and his performance was definitely a high point of this year’s festival.
Although we tended to stay close to the Cat Head Stage during Juke Join Festival, so as to not miss the stellar line-up of blues artists there, we did venture out to some of the other stages, as well as the local and regional artists and other vendors who set up under the tents along every major street in downtown Clarksdale. Many of these vendors sold fine works of art, the majority of them with a blues theme, as well as beautifully hand-crafted cigar box guitars. A few of the tents were promotional efforts by local or regional businesses, one of them a hotel corporation that is openly a four-star luxury hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi, and which plans to take over two budget motels in Clarksdale and upgrade them to luxury status. Another new hotel, the Travelers’ Hotel, is under construction in an old historic building in downtown Clarksdale. Some of the artists appearing on other stages included Joyce Jones from Potts Camp, with her son Cameron Kimbrough on drums and Little Willie Farmer from Duck Hill, Mississippi. Those looking to recharge their phones or get some shelter from the occasional rain ended up at Meraki Coffee Roasters on Sunflower Avenue, where they could enjoy light baked goods and fine pour-over or French press coffees, at least until the rain and wind knocked out power to most of the downtown area.
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.
The annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi has grown into one of the largest music festivals in Mississippi, with four days of live performances, many of them free. Blues musicians from the Delta, the Hill Country, South Mississippi, other states and even other countries come to Clarksdale each April to perform, and hotel rooms are hard to come by.
This year we kicked off our Juke Joint Fest weekend by heading to Bluesberry Cafe on Friday night, where the Hill Country blues legend Duwayne Burnside was performing with his band. Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside, is one of the best blues guitarists in America today, and the little cafe with a stage was filled to overflowing with blues fans and fellow musicians. Burnside’s performance was followed by an appearance of R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi, sharing the stage with Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, who has taken the Hill Country style of blues back to his home country in South America, and has even brought Hill Country musicians to Colombia. Although the weather outside was nasty indeed, inside Bluesberry was good times and good feelings. It was a great way to start Clarksdale’s biggest weekend of the year.
This year’s premiere Oxford Bourbon Festival in Oxford, Mississippi consisted two nights of tasting at the historic Lyric Theatre and a night of live blues and more bourbon at the Oxford location of New Albany’s Tallahatchie Gourmet, which, the last time I was there, was a cool coffee bar called The Shelter on Van Buren, where Duwayne Burnside had been performing on a New Year’s Eve. As Tallahatchie Gourmet, the place seems brighter and sharper, but it still retains its homey, comfortable vibe. The music of the evening was Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce, who was playing with fellow blues musician Lightnin Malcolm, and Boyce’s daughter Sherena, a well-known juke joint dancer in the Hill Country region. The crowd was somewhat sparse, but full of people who knew the musicians and yelled their enthusiasm from the audience. Although I didn’t eat, I have to add that the Tallahatchie Gourmet menu leans toward New Orleans cuisine and looks worth checking out.
Robert Kimbrough Sr. is one of three musician sons of the legendary bluesman Junior Kimbrough, and in recent years he has been the most prolific and ambitious of the three, releasing several albums, performing frequently with his band the Blues Connection, and helping to organize an annual Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival each May in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Recently, on a Friday evening, he brought out his new band to Rooster’s Blues House on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, for a night of what he terms “cotton patch soul blues.” Although Kimbrough can play his father’s hits, and usually obliges the crowd’s desire for the seminal “All Night Long”, much of his shows are given to his original compositions, which straddle the fence between the style that many musicologists call “hill country blues” and a more modern southern soul. Songs such as “Battlefield” are typical, with a strong driving beat provided by drummer J. J. Wilburn, formerly of the band Old Grey Mule. The club was filled to the rafters, despite the chilly and foggy weather outside, and the sizable crowd enjoyed themselves immensely, until the early closing time, that apparently was precipitated by it being spring break week. On the other hand, the utter desolation of the square after the clubs closed was remarkable and unexpected. We were told it was due to the students being out of school for the break.
The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.