This is the second year of the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival, which celebrates the legacy of Junior Kimbrough and his sons David, Robert and Kinney, and this year’s festival, held on Mothers’ Day, was hot weather-wise, and musically as well. Rather than being held inside The Hut in Holly Springs, where the Friday night jams had taken place, the Sunday afternoon line-up was held on a large stage outside, where a crowd enjoyed a number of familiar and not-so-familiar blues artists, including the Hoodoo Men from Nashville (I had not heard of them, but was pleasantly impressed), Cameron Kimbrough, Joyce Jones, R. L. Boyce, juke joint dancer Sherena Boyce, Eric Deaton, Lucious Spiller, and of course the Kimbrough Brothers. Also of interest was a new beer called Kimbrough Cotton Patch Kolsch, named in honor of the Kimbrough family, and released by the 1817 Brewery out of Okolona, Mississippi. These folks also have something called “Hill Country IPA,” and are one of a number of new microbreweries springing up in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. Since I had to work the next day, I was not able to stay until the end of the festival, which I was told came about midnight or so, but year 2 of the Kimbrough Festival was a rousing success.
Each year, Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of legendary fife-and-drum band leader Othar Turner, holds an annual picnic in her grandfathers’ memory at Gravel Springs, a community a few miles east of Senatobia in Tate County. But this year’s festival, the 67th annual Goat Picnic, was a struggle and almost didn’t happen. A factional dispute within the larger Turner family led to the event being exiled from Otha’s homestead, where it has always been held in the past, and even the demolition of some of the historic structures on the property. With a fence erected to keep attendees off the homestead, this year’s picnic was held in a much smaller space to the east of the former location. But this year’s festival was also a free event, after several years of admission charges, and a crowd of a few hundred gathered to enjoy such artists as Lucious Spiller and Robert Kimbrough, and of course the great fife and drum music of Sharde’s own Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which played throughout the night. On the first night, both the picnic and the Gravel Springs block party along the road outside the picnic seemed somewhat subdued this year. But there was good food, good fun, perfect weather, and lots of great fife and drum music from one of the best bands in the genre.
On the first Saturday of the new year, a cold day indeed, my girlfriend and I headed down to Clarksdale to eat at Levon’s and enjoy some blues at Red’s Juke Joint. This was our first occasion trying Levon’s, and in my opinion, it is the fine dining restaurant that Clarksdale has been needing. R. L. Boyce was playing at Red’s, but when we arrived, some of his musicians had not shown up, and there wasn’t much of a crowd. But Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller has recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock, and he agreed to go get his guitar and amp to play with R. L., and soon there was at least a trio of two guitars and a drummer. On some tunes, R.L.’s daughter joined him on stage playing the tambourine and dancing, and toward the end of the evening, they were joined by a musician playing a bass made out of a plastic bucket, a mop handle and a string. By then the crowd had grown fairly large, despite the cold weather outside. It was a great way to start off 2017- with the blues.
Although Arkansas has a delta region as well, and although the state has produced lots of great blues and jazz musicians, Arkansas has few blues clubs. Little Rock’s venerable White Water Tavern is one of the few places in the state to consistently book great blues, as well as many other forms of roots music. I first became acquainted with the place in 2015 when the young retro-soul star Leon Bridges performed there, and I soon became aware that the Tavern has played host to such blues figures as Patrick Sweany, Cedell Davis and Lucious Spiller. So this dive bar was a perfect site for Lightnin Malcolm’s traveling caravan of Hill Country blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce, Leo “Bud” Welch and Robert “Bilbo” Walker. Every event I have ever attended at the White Water Tavern has been standing-room-only, and this one was no exception. There is a back patio, but because the weather was so cold and wet, nobody was going out there, and the room was very crowded indeed. But the crowd was treated to some of the very best in Hill Country music, starting with Leo Welch backed by Lightnin Malcolm on drums, and then Lightnin’s own solo set with guitar and drums as a one-man band, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and juke joint dancing. R. L. Boyce followed, doing a number of his traditional tunes, and then Robert “Bilbo” Walker followed, in a style that showed considerable Louisiana influence. Altogether, it was an amazing show in an amazing place.
Live blues is common in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which makes its rarity in neighboring Helena, Arkansas all the stranger, but Helena just hasn’t seen the renaissance that Clarksdale has seen in recent years. Nevertheless, when I saw that fantastic Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller would be playing at a place called Club 21 for the kickoff party of something called the Americana Music Triangle, I called my homegirl Evelyn Archer and asked her if she wanted to go.
Evelyn used to live in Helena and owns a building on Cherry Street that blues fans recall as Bunky’s during the King Biscuit Blues Festival in previous years, so I knew she would want to go, but unfortunately she had church responsibilities, so we got a late start out of Memphis, and by the time we got to Club 21, things were winding down somewhat. We were met in front of the club by the grandson of the legendary bluesman Houston Steakhouse, and Lucious was playing a great blues tune when we walked in. Unfortunately, he only played about four more songs after that, and all of them were rock or pop covers, including his closing version of “Purple Rain.” Still it was great to see the juke joint, which the people in Helena are trying to turn into a regular music venue, and the Americana Music Triangle is a website that covers a half-moon shaped region from New Orleans to Nashville where so many roots forms of American music were born. Evelyn took us by her building so we could see it, and we dropped her friend off at his house. But it was now after 11 PM, and there was no place to eat in Helena, so we grabbed a breakfast at the Waffle House in Tunica before heading back to Memphis.
Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller had impressed me at his performance Thursday night, but nobody was expecting to run into him performing at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale on Saturday afternoon. He wasn’t expecting to perform either, apparently, choosing Red’s as a suitably quiet place for the film interview with him that somebody wanted to do, but he ended up performing a brief set of songs for those of us lucky enough to stumble onto the scene.
The New Roxy was once the main theatre in Clarksdale’s New World District, but years of abandonment took their toll, and by the time the current owners began redeveloping it as a music venue, it had no roof and became basically an outdoor venue enclosed by walls. Thursday night was especially cold, and the New Roxy had no heat except that from a woodfire in a brazier about halfway between the stage and the entrance. But the opportunity to see extraordinary Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller was worth dealing with the cold weather. Spiller, a newphew of Magic Sam, graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, and soon became know worldwide for his unique approach to the blues. His set Wednesday night was a mix of traditional blues and more contemporary soul material.
The Acoustic Stage was at the Sunflower River on Yazoo Avenue, next door to the Quapaw Canoe Company. This stage featured such artists as Kenny Brown, Lucious Spiller and Robert Belfour, August 13, 2011, Clarksdale, MS