I was late in getting to the second day of the King Biscuit Blues Festival because I had visited the massive Coldwater Trade Day sale in Coldwater, Mississippi first, but what I found when I arrived in Helena was not much different than what I had seen the night before. If anything, the daylight revealed more of the deterioration and dilapidation that has overtaken downtown Helena, including perhaps the most shocking ruin, an old motel on Walnut Street with shattered windows and gutted rooms. I did manage to catch a few decent blues acts, including the Jesse Cotton Stone Blues Band on the stage at Thad Kelley Courtyard, and Hill Country great Duwayne Burnside at the Lockwood Stage on Rightor Street near Bailee Mae’s Coffee. Behind him came the Phillip Stackhouse Band, which drew the largest crowd I had seen all day, including some enthusiastic dancers out in the street in front of the stage. Afterwards, the barbecue fest seemed to be winding down, and there were literally no other acts I had ever heard of scheduled to appear, so, although I considered trying the new Southbound Tavern for dinner, I decided to leave and drive down to Sumner, Mississippi to the Sumner Grille for dinner instead. At Sumner, there was some sort of an outdoor music concert in the square, with a country-rock band performing, but the restaurant itself wasn’t very crowded, and I my filet mignon was delicious as always.
Like all of Eastern Arkansas, Helena had seen better days by the late 1970’s, but the worst was yet to come. When the Mohawk Tire Company decided to close its West Helena plant in 1979, the local economy completely collapsed. While both Helena and West Helena had about 10,000 people each in 1980 or so, by the time they agreed to merge in 2003, they barely had 12,000 people together, and merger was fraught with so many roadblocks that they could not agree to name the resulting city “Helena”, but rather the unwieldy name of “Helena-West Helena.” Nowadays, the only real income generator for the area is tourism, and tourism is pretty much limited to one week of the year, the October week of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. Unfortunately, this year’s King Biscuit festival left a lot to be desired. For one thing, Arkansas’ veteran bluesman Cedell Davis died unexpectedly, leaving a vacancy in the lineup. Secondly, with no apparent irony, under a heading that proclaimed the festival as the “real deal”, were pictures of this year’s headliners- J. J. Grey & Mofro, Government Mule and Tab Benoit, hardly a triumvirate of blues musicians, to say the least. But what I noticed this year more than last year was the extent of abandonment, decay and devastation in Helena, particularly downtown. Although many buildings on Cherry Street have been restored, the bulk of them are largely vacant. Crowds thronged the street of course during the festival, but it was largely to go to and from the stages, or to patronize the food trucks and temporary vendors. Things were even more devastating along Walnut Street, the street where the barbecue festival was going on. North of the festival area were eviscerated buildings, and an abandoned motel whose rooms were largely open to the wind and cold, one wall of which had been turned into a mural in honor of the late Cedell Davis. Even finding something to eat other than a food truck took some doing, although last year’s Southbound Pizza had turned into a slightly-more-upscale place this year called Southbound Tavern, and the local coffee bar Bailee Mae’slocation behind the Lockwood Stage on Rightor Street made it a popular place for festival-goers. Odder yet was the difficulty I encountered in finding any roots blues music around the festival. Blind Mississippi Morris was playing on a stage at Walnut Street to a small crowd, but the best blues of the evening was actually to be found in a small square called Thad Kelley Square along Cherry Street, located on the footprint of a demolished building, where Taildragger and others performed to a moderate but enthusiastic crowd. Unfortunately, when I returned to my car, I found that it had been entered and rifled through, although nothing actually appeared to be missing.
After the Rebirth Brass Band performance, I walked back through the crowds on Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Many of the vendors were beginning to take down their displays for the night, but there was still a lot going on. At an outdoor performance spot, a group of younger blues musicians was performing, and it was actually really good music. A sign nearby explained that the group was Mookie Cartwright, Josh Parks and Friends. I am not sure who any of them were, but presumably, they are local Helena area artists. After checking them out for a moment, I stopped in Southbound Pizza nearby for a pepperoni and bacon pie before making the drive back to Memphis.
Those who know me know that I love New Orleans brass band music. Given the fairly short distance between Memphis and New Orleans, it seems odd that we so rarely have an opportunity to hear authentic brass bands in our area, but on the rare occasions that they do come up here, I try to be there. The Rebirth Brass Band is really the band that picked up where the original Fairview Brass Band left off, and made sure that the photo-revival of brass band music in the 1970’s would be permanent and not merely a footnote of history. Their performance at the Main Stage at Helena’s King Biscuit Blues Festival was absolutely perfect. The breezy, warm night was a perfect setting for an outdoor show, and brass band music is intended for outdoor settings. The crowd was literally standing room only. And Rebirth played all of the hits for which they are famous. Before it ended, people were standing up and dancing in the aisles.
63-year-old Robert Finley is from Bernice, Louisiana, near Ruston, and is well-known to the people in the Monroe, Louisiana area where he often performs. But he never made a record until his recent debut Age Don’t Mean A Thing on the Big Legal Mess subsidiary of Fat Possum Records out of Oxford. The Fat Possum imprint started with blues artists, and slowly seems to be heading back in that direction, having signed the 83-year-old Leo Bud Welch a couple of years ago for his debut album, and finding a similar artist in Finley.
This year’s King Biscuit Blues Festival found Robert Finley performing on Cherry Street in downtown Helena and signing copies of his new debut album, which I highly recommend.
Aside from the main festival stage area, the center of activity during the King Biscuit Blues Festival is Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Usually a ghost town, during the festival the street is as busy as Memphis’ Beale Street, and with good reason, as the street is lined with vendors and performers, as are several of the side streets. Stands, carts and trucks sell everything from CD’s and clothing to food, and a few belong to blues musicians and performers. There are also a couple of outdoor stages, one directly on Cherry Street and the other near the dead-end of Rightor Street in front of Bailee Mae’s Coffee House, which is a popular place indeed during King Biscuit week. This year’s festival was helped by the pleasant, unseasonably warm weather which had crowds outside by the hundreds.
Helena, Arkansas is a town that the years have been cruel to. As Arkansas’ only Mississippi River port in the modern era, it should have been a successful city, and was once home to large industries such as Chicago Mill and Lumber and Mohawk Tire. But industries began to leave in the 1970’s, and the population of Helena and its neighbor to the west, West Helena both declined precipitously. By the time the two cities merged, they barely had 10,000 people together, and the community largely looked desolate. Crime and blight were the rule rather than the exception, and Helena’s large downtown was mostly vacant. A casino across the river in Mississippi did not halt the slide, nor did Clarksdale’s tourist renaissance that followed the opening of Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett’s Ground Zero Blues Club. But for one week each October, Helena becomes the most important city in the world for blues, as the King Biscuit Blues Festival takes over the downtown area near the river. The crowds that pour into the city come from all over the world, and the festival tends to bring attention to neighborhoods that are usually forgotten. As official parking fills up, blues fans head further south, into a old and struggling neighborhood called Beautiful Zion. Like so many African-American neighborhoods in the Delta regions along the Mississippi River, this community takes its name from a church in the area, and the church has been actively involved in efforts to rehabilitate the community, which sits in the shadow of an old cotton compress. On the Friday night of King Biscuit week, the community was in a festive mood, with a lot of people outdoors in the warm weather, and members of the church out selling food plates to festival goers. A woman called my attention to the church’s After School Program in a neighborhood building, and asked me to take a picture of it, which I did. But a block to the north, along Missouri Street, was a string of abandoned buildings that seemed to have once contained night clubs and/or restaurants. Some of the buildings had roofs that were caving in, and I was amazed at the extent of the devastation and lack of preservation effort. Despite a long history of blues music in Helena, the city has just not seen the kind of renewal that is occurring in Clarksdale, Mississippi, some 30 miles to the southeast.