Although I have passed by Alligator, Mississippi many times on my way to somewhere else, I have never taken the time to venture off the road into the little town to see what was there. Maps of the place intrigued me, as they showed the town sitting on a lake called Alligator Lake, and I wondered if there had really been alligators there. The place seemed a little far north for them, actually. But after I learned that Robert “Bilbo” Walker’s new juke joint is located in the rural area east of Alligator, the area took on a new significance, and so I decided to head into the town and see if there was anything historic. Unfortunately, like so many other Delta towns, the years have not been particularly kind to Alligator. Although the houses across the road from the lake are attractive and well-kept, the downtown area, particularly that along Front Street, has clearly seen better days. While there is a sort of mini-mart that welcomed “Blues Tourists” that is still open on Lake Street, none of the buildings on Front Street seem to be occupied, and one of them is clearly beginning to collapse. It has been boarded up, and the boards are covered with graffiti and strange, gothic symbols, while barrels placed out in front of it warn “Danger” and “Keep Away”. What with the all-seeing eye and other cryptic symbols on the place, I half wondered if the signs were there to keep people away from some center of cultic activity rather than merely a collapsing building. In fact, the word “worship” is spray-painted on the boards along with the symbols. Other than the decaying buildings, there is a blues trail marker discussing the blues history and heritage of the town of Alligator, and Robert “Bilbo” Walker was mentioned in it. With it being Memorial Day, a few men were sitting under a tree downtown having a sort of picnic. As for the town, that was about it.
Still, I ventured further out to where Robert “Bilbo” Walker’s Wonder City juke joint is under construction, and found that the area still resembles a construction site, and is quite aways off the beaten path, yet I can tell that it will be a popular destination for fans of the blues (Wonder City will open the weekend of June 16th and 17th). The road we took east from Alligator leads back to the New Africa Road (quite an intriguing name in itself), and along that road heading toward Drew, we came upon an abandoned gas station with pumps still intact. There are no signs to indicate what the place was called, but it seems a throwback to an earlier era indeed, out in the wilderness east of Alligator. Not all that far beyond it, the road brought us into Drew.
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.
Perhaps Easter doesn’t bring thoughts of blues to many people, but this Easter evening was the occasion for an amazing event at Foxfire Ranch celebrating the release of a new album by 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch. Welch’s story is amazing, for he is an authentic traditional bluesman who remained undiscovered until 2013 at the age of 82, when he began recording his first record. He signed with Fat Possum’s Big Legal Mess subsidiary the same year, and released his debut album Sabougla Voices, which was a gospel record. (“Sabougla” is a hamlet in Calhoun County, Mississippi where Welch is from). Gospel is Leo’s preferred music, but his young audiences love to hear him play blues, and he does so on his sophomore album, which is aptly entitled I Don’t Prefer No Blues. But to celebrate its release, rather than a typical release party, a full evening of live Hill Country blues was scheduled at the Hill Country Pavilion at Foxfire near Waterford, Mississippi. Although the sun was out, the day was chilly, but a decent crowd showed up at 5 PM for the opening act, Jason Carter, who performed acoustically with another guitar player. Right behind him came Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayres, collectively known as the Cedric Burnside Project, who got things crunk with the heavy, rock-inflected brand of blues they play, including one of Cedric’s trademark extended drum solos. Several members of the legendary Burnside family were in the audience, including Duwayne and Garry Burnside. The next act up was something a little different. Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition are also on the Fat Possum label, and are more of a strange but winsome amalgam of indie rock, traditional country, blues and funk, which Jimbo whimsically calls “catfish music”. Although he maintains a different sound than Hill Country blues, the influence of blues can be heard through much of his work. Robert “Bilbo” Walker is 76 years old nowadays, and is a former Mississippi bluesman who currently lives in California. Although he is originally from Mississippi, his music has considerable Louisiana and swamp influences, which came to the forefront in his reading of the classic blues/soul song “Staggerlee”. Finally, at the end of the night, Leo “Bud” Welch came up with his three-piece band and performed a collection of songs from the new album, which he had available for sale there at the pavilion. When things finally came to an end around 10 PM, there was still a decent crowd.
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