When I finally made it back to Clarksdale, there was a fairly large crowd at the tiny Eighth Street Grocery, and a lot of cars parked in the block near it. But the musicians were still outside in the front yard, and though it was after 8 PM, things had not yet gotten underway.
The normal store stock had been moved to make way for tables and chairs, and the band had set up their instruments against the north wall of the building, near two television screens that were hanging there. A large table selling food had been set up near the entrance.
When Big A and Space Cowboy finally came inside and began playing, the place soon filled up to overflowing. The old building was set up on blocks off the ground, and the wooden floor sagged with the pounding it was taking from the dancers. There was hardly room for the tables and chairs, but somehow it all worked. Unlike the experience of hearing blues in a modern club or at a festival, this intimate setting was more exciting, as there was constant interaction between members of the crowd and the musicians, who after all, knew each other, Clarksdale being a small town.
I was having so much fun that I didn’t want to leave, but with me having to work the next morning, I had to leave at 10 PM to make the two-hour journey back to Memphis. I expect the revelry and good music went on far into the night.
Roger Stolle, the arbiter of all things blue in Coahoma County had listed a strange and rather unusual entry in his weekly live music flyer- Anthony “Big A” Sherrod and the Space Cowboy performing at a place I didn’t know called Eighth Street Grocery in Clarksdale. I had thought I knew every place in Clarksdale, certainly every musical place, anyway, but this one was new. And a check of its location on the map showed that it was in a Clarksdale neighborhood that I had never been in really, although it was not all that far from Pete’s Grill where I had played with Duwayne Burnside the week before.
So, on the off-chance that I might want to check it out, I drove to the location to find out where it was and confirm that they actually were going to have live music. It was an actual grocery store, an old-school one, with a wooden floor, but a space had been cleared for tables and chairs, and a barbecue grill set-up.
I found out that it would start at 8 PM, and that admission would be $5, so I told the woman running the store that I would likely be back, and then headed out toward Hopson Plantation and Old Highway 49.
I usually enjoy myself quite a bit at the annual Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, but this year’s festival was both wet and harried, as it poured down rain most of the day, and as I was scheduled to perform with Duwayne Burnside twice.
Upon arriving in Clarksdale, I found that the festival authorities would not allow me to park in the performers’ lot because I didn’t know the password. So I had to park down by Yazoo Pass coffee bar, and I managed to get there for a toffee cookie and a latte. But by then, the rain had really picked up, and I wanted to check out the new restaurant that had taken over the old Pinkbar on John Lee Hooker Street, the Hooker Grocer & Eatery.
With no umbrella, getting there took some doing, using shop awnings as cover where possible, and I still managed to get quite wet. Then, with the restaurant being new, Hooker Grocer proved to be packed to the rafters, with people waiting for tables. Ultimately, I managed to get seated, but the menu was fairly limited, expensive and strange. I ultimately opted for the burger, although without the mustard sauce or pickles, and to my disappointment, they didn’t serve bacon, nor french fries. What I got was a relatively dry burger with cheese, no accompaniments, and a canned drink, for nearly $20. That being said, I loved the blues-themed decor of the place and its atmosphere. Their dinner menu looks more interesting if I ever have the time or inclination. A young woman was inside the restaurant selling R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough T-shirts, hand-made, but she didn’t have my size, and it was nearly time for me to perform at the Cat Head stage. However, now the rain had started in earnest, coming down in torrents, and I with no rain gear nor umbrella. Eventually, it slacked up enough that I felt comfortable heading to Cat Head, where the show was still going on bravely, under a tent that periodically would grow heavy with rain and then deposit it over the heads of the fans. I learned there that due to the rain I would likely have no trouble getting my car into the area to unload equipment, so I struggled back to the parking lot where I had parked the car, and then drove back down to the Cat Head stage.
By the time I got equipment unloaded into Cat Head store, it was just about time to set up and perform. There was very little room for a keyboard, but I managed to get set up, and Duwayne gave a rousing performance as best he could, while water occasionally poured down from overhead on amps, keyboards and our heads. I had left my keyboard bag inside the store, and suddenly, I looked around behind me and realized that the store had closed at 5 PM, which led to immediate panic. With the bag locked inside the store, I would have no way to put my keyboard back up afterwards, or protect it from the weather. Fortunately, when we finally finished performing, I learned that someone had thoughtfully brought it outside before the store was locked. And the rain had stopped enough that I was able to load up and head in search of dinner before my next performance.
Restaurants tend to work from a limited menu during Juke Joint Fest, which annoys me year in and year out, but I managed to get seated at Levon’s with less difficulty than the previous year. Last time, they had been serving their normal, full menu, but this year, to my disappointment, they too had created a limited JJF menu, but at least their signature pizzas were on it. Sherena Boyce soon joined me, and we enjoyed a leisurely dinner before we had to head to Pete’s Bar and Grill for my second performance of the night.
Pete’s is an old hole-in-the-wall near the Riverside Hotel, which normally does not have live music, but which makes a great setting for blues. On this particular night, Garry Burnside kicked off the evening of music, and I was not scheduled to perform with him, but he invited me to sit in, and I agreed. David Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough, also came and sat in. He had been sick and some were not expecting him to be there, but he performed and sounded good. With Duwayne, we played until about 11 PM, and it had started raining again.
Sherena said she was going by Red’s Lounge to check on her dad R.L., but I loaded up my equipment and headed out back to Memphis, with lighting flashing off to the west. Although it had been a wet and somewhat frantic day, I was pleasantly content.
Elsewhere in this blog, I have commented on Clarksdale’s excellent coffee roasting firm Meraki Roasting Company, but on a recent trip to meet with a British festival buyer who was scouting for talent to take to his festival in the UK, I stopped in for a pour-over and ran into a youngster playing the guitar and singing blues. That is not all that surprising, as Meraki is part of a larger youth after-school program called Griot Arts, which includes music as part of its program. But what was surprising was how talented and accomplished the young man was. I talked with him and he told me his name was Omar Sharif Gordon. What I learned is that the blues has a future. The constant claim that the music has no support among young people, or that it is the “least popular music in America” is not necessarily the truth. There are some talented young people choosing to take up the blues, and they need promotion and encouragement. Let’s embrace them with the same enthusiasm we show toward the legends.
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.
For a city of nearly 20,000, Clarksdale, Mississippi is severely under-represented when it comes to restaurants, particularly fine dining. During Juke Joint Festival, the problem becomes more significant, as the main restaurants are either on special festival menus with limited choices, or outrageously crowded, with wait times that can exceed an hour and cause you to miss a performer you were hoping to see. But on the way to Mardi Gras in February, I had become aware of a place in Rena Lara, about 10 minutes from Clarksdale, that has ribeye steaks and live music on weekends. The Great River Road Country Store, from Highway 1, looks like a gas station, but looks can be deceiving. Of course you can purchase gasoline there, and inside, it has all the usual items you would expect in a country store. But once inside, you notice a vast array of tables, and a large performance stage. The fact is, on weekends, the Great River Road store turns into a combination steakhouse and live music club. I arrived too early for the live music, and the rain was pouring down outside, but I ordered a rib-eye steak, and I was thoroughly pleased. Ribeyes are not my favorite cut of meat, yet this steak was tender, with no tough fat or gristle, and excellent flavor. There was nothing particularly fancy of gourmet about it. Just a delicious steak, with Texas toast and a baked potato. As for the atmosphere, it was interesting as well, with some children who were related to the owner dressed in hunting gear and running joyfully around the premises. The woman who was serving me explained that the owners’ son owned Catfish Blues in Hernando, and was opening a new steakhouse in Senatobia called Delta Kitchen, which I had already heard about. Although the Great River Road sells food everyday, steaks are only cooked on weekends. It’s worth a drive down into the Delta for great food, great fun and occasional great music.
Great River Road Country Store
3915 Highway 1
Rena Lara, MS 38720
This year’s Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale had to contend with any number of unusual obstacles this year, including rain, a downtown power outage that lasted several hours, and in the afternoon, a sudden blast of wind that overturned tents and sent them blowing down streets! What was so odd about it was that the rain had ended several hours before, and there had even been periods of beautiful sunshine in the hours leading up to the wind gusts. Despite all the problems, musicians continued playing acoustically where they didn’t have power, and all the power had been restored by the evening performances in the juke joints.
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.