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.
I learned about the Blues At Home Blowout at the Lamar Lounge from attorney Tom Freeland’s excellent North Mississippi Commentor blog, which is a great online destination for all things Oxford, from music, to legal things to Faulknerian lore, so even though I had just gone to Oxford the week before, I had to go again. The line-up displayed on the poster was absolutely amazing, and I frankly could not imagine how all of those artists would be able to perform even in the three hours or so allotted for the concert. As it turned out, not all the performers listed appeared, but even so, the three hours were jam-packed with blues, and everything got worked in by the expedient of having Jimbo Mathus on drums for everyone, and keeping the same bass player throughout, and they did a yeoman’s job, although I’m sure they were quite tired when it was all over. The event was actually an after-party for Mississippi artist H.C. Porter‘s remarkable Blues At Home exhibit at the University of Mississippi, and fearing that I wouldn’t get a table in front of the stage otherwise, I showed up at the Lamar Lounge two hours before starting time. As it turned out, Jimbo Mathus performed a dinner hour set on guitar with his bass player for an hour before the starting time for the concert. He then switched to drums, and the first performer of the night came on stage, 82-year-old Leo “Bud” Welch, who released his first album Sabougla Voices this year on Fat Possum Records‘ Big Legal Mess subsidiary. He was followed by Hattiesburg/Jackson bluesman Vasti Jackson, a musician I had often heard my poet friend Charlie Braxton mention. Vasti Jackson was followed by Natchez blues guitarist Y.Z. Ealey, who is a brother of Southern soul star Theodis Ealey, and whose style showed a considerable influence from swamp blues and swamp pop. He was joined by Broke and Hungry Records artist Terry “Harmonica” Bean sitting in on harmonica. Mickey Rogers was up next, a blues guitarist I had seen last year on a trip to Indianola, and then Jackson-based Jesse Robinson came up, a guitarist I was really not familiar with, but whose guitar skills amazed everyone in the room. Behind him came Kenny Brown, the hometown favorite who grew up with blues legend Joe Callicot in Nesbit, Mississippi and who studied with the late R. L. Burnside. His music can always get an Oxford crowd to their feet, and what little space was available for dancing was soon filled. Finally, the headliner of the night, Bobby Rush came and performed very briefly, as he had driven down from an earlier performance at Rhodes College in Memphis. Altogether it was an amazing night of Mississippi blues, from a number of different performers than the ones often seen in North Mississippi, and there was a sort of lagniappe when, quite unexpectedly, Vasti Jackson and Bobby Rush launched a brief guitar and harmonica duo on the back patio near the barbecue pit. All in all, one of the most memorable Mississippi blues nights ever.