When it comes to blues festivals it just doesn't get any better than this. It is a street fair, a blues fest, and a reunion all rolled into one. People come from all over the globe and descend on this little town of 15,012 along the banks of the Mississippi. The fest itself starts on the Thursday before Columbus Day and ends on Saturday.
Hotel rooms are somewhat hard to get, unless you plan early. Most establishments jack up their prices for this weekend, but the annual influx of blues fans is one of the things that keeps this town moving. Personally, I like to get into town a few days early and stay across the river at The Isle of Capri Casino when the rates are lower. I arrive early to see some of the historic blues sites in the area and visit the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena. Once the rates go up, I hit the fireman’s campground and Tent City.
This years fest was absolutely off the charts. The Mayor , Mike Miller, and Vice Mayor, Jennifer Cummings, of Tent City, opened this years fest and the music started. The music starts at noon and goes till midnight all three days. The Blues Fest has it’s own form of currency, It’s called Blues Bucks. These Blues Bucks are used to buy everything from the vendors. A cold beer only cost 2 Blues Bucks. Another bargain at the fest is becoming a Friend of the Biscuit. F.O.B.’s get special access to the VIP seating area, a t-shirt, a CD and other goodies in their gift bag. Becoming a Friend of the Biscuit costs $75 and the proceeds help to keep the festival free.
The American economic situation and the price of gasoline took its toll on the attendance at this years fest. Numbers seemed down from past years. There was even more room in the camp ground. While attendance may have been down, this year marks one of the first times the festival actually made a profit. This is a testimonial to the hard work and leadership of the Sonny Boy Blues Society, The city of Helena / West Helena and those that run the fest. Politicians could learn a lesson from these folks.
It is very difficult to pick one single best performance because everybody was so good. It is very hard to catch all of the music. There is a main stage, a side stage and the emerging artists stage. Beyond that, almost every where you turn there are buskers (street performers) up and down Cherry Street that draw crowds.
Here are some of the highlights:
Thursday The Memphis Snake Doctors were the first band to play. The weather was great and we were just getting started. Arsen Shomakhov The Russian sensation , won the emerging artists competition at last years fest, and got his shot at the main stage. Shomakhov (Show-ma-kov) showed why he won, he wowed the crowed. Trampled Under Foot, the 2008 IBC Winner, also put on a fantastic show. Both were a great surprise for a first time listener..
The Main stage is the only stage with music on Thursday. With the line-up they had , I don't think I could have handled much more. Reba Russell, Web Wilder & Tinsley Ellis were totally off the hook. I think they were the best acts of the night.
Michael Burks, the Iron Man, played on Friday night and wound the crowd into an absolute frenzy. This man can play some mean guitar. He was absolutely fantastic, he can make you feel good and hurt ya all at the same time with his blues. Michael Burks has so much energy on stage he could jump start a recreational vehicle. I highly recommend you pick up some of his music. If you are a fan of guitar, he is a must have addition to your music collection. Michael Burks is in a very small group of elite guitar players. He could have been the best act of the weekend.
Speaking of guitar players, Carl Weathersby also played the fest on Friday night. I missed Carl’s set, but I am told that he was on top of his game. Anytime you get a chance to hear Carl Weathersby, stop what you are doing and listen to him whale.
Mem Shannon and the Membership was another great band to play on Friday night. Mem’s style is more subtle than both Burke’s and Weathersby but none the less, still a great performance. Mem and his band have some great original music. His style is more New Orleans with a mix of jazz. His voice is deep and almost makes you listen to each word as the story is told in song form.
Hamilton Loomis seemed to get the Friday Party started when he took the stage at about 1:30 in the afternoon. He did a great set, full of energy. The early Friday crowd was small, but Hamilton Loomis had almost everybody dancing and moving to his music. At one point he even came out into the crowd and did some dancing while still playing his guitar. I had never heard of him before, but he can count on me as one of his new fans.
That was only half of the main stage acts on Friday. Pinetop Perkins with Bob Margolin and crew also played as did Sam Carr & the Delta Jukes w/ Dave Riley, Earnest “Guitar” Roy, and Severn Records 10th Anniversary Soul & Blues Review with Lou Pride, Darrell Nulisch & Tad Robinson.
There is a whole other stage with music that also runs from Noon to Midnight. I call it the Budweiser stage. It actually has two names, from noon to 5 pm it is called the Houston Stackhouse Acoustic Stage because acoustic music is played. After 5pm the name changes to the Robert Lockwood Jr. Heritage Stage.
The stage location is great. Its tucked away at the end of a cobble stone York Street between the old Helena Wholesale store and what can be best described as a mostly tore down warehouse. The stage faces the levee and the music can be heard clearly into the west end of the camp ground.
Moreland and Arbuckle played this stage Friday evening. What a great set, these guys are out of Kansas but sound like they were born in the heart of the Mississippi hill country . Their music is gripping, haunting, raw and ass kicking all in one. I also saw them Saturday playing with their drummer , on the street. I could not stand still. The music they play will grab ya, shake you about, make you dance and move like never before. The music they play and the way they play it just does something good to ya and makes you want to move. By all means pick up some of their music or catch them live when you get a chance.
Saturday was another great night to be in Helena Arkansas. Rick Estrin & The Nightcats put on a very good show with their ass kicking guitar player, Kid Anderson. Janiva Magness put on a good show and was sporting an Autism Awareness bracelet throughout her show; Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets did not disappoint. The best shows of Saturday night were left for the end.
Hubert Sumlin & Willie Big Eyes Smith with Bob Stroger and Steady Rollin Bob Margolin were kick ass! These guys don’t take names, they just blow you away. They were tight and sounded great. Willie’s kid, Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith was on drums and I believe he was one of the best drummers I heard all weekend.
Bobby Rush and his big booty women closed out the fest. Bobby Rush once again easily drew the biggest crowd of the weekend. It was absolutely crazy. That man seems to get better with age. I have seen him many times and this show was one of his best. He played some acoustic music earlier in the evening on the Budweiser stage. He again sounded great.
Naturally a blues fester can not catch every act that ya want to. I was sorry to miss The Juke Joint Duo of Cedric Burnside & Lightin Malcolm. I also did not catch Carl Weathersby nor did I hear Pinetop Perkins. I was able to catch Elam McKnight & Bob Bogdal in the campground but not on stage.
I chose not to hit Hopson this year. The Hopson Commissary and Plantation is the site of the Pinetop Perkins Homecoming. It really is a must see show. Most of the acts and street performers show up here. The Hopson Plantation has a few stages set up on the grounds. This event is worth a one day trip and only a few miles south of Helena on Highway 61.
Besides catching as many acts as possible, I volunteered everyday from noon to 4pm. Imagine that, after a long night of partying in the campground. Thank goodness for the cold showers in the camp for an instant second wind right around sun-down. It was either fall asleep or take a cold shower. I did not travel all those miles to fall asleep at The Biscuit.
The Street performers are just about everywhere. Some of the best I saw was Deak The Harpman, Trainwreck and eef. I also caught Moreland & Arebuckle on the street and Johny Lowebow. I must say that Trainwreck was the best of the street performers. I saw them in past years but bought their CD this year, they put on an amazing show. The drummer does not use sticks, he bangs them drums with tapped up fingers. Check them out if you can, it’s something you've never seen before.
On Sunday there are two other events a little further south down Highway 61. In Clarksdale there is a small music fest that starts at 9am on the front porch of Cathead music store . At 2 pm Pinetop Perkins has his homecoming at the Hopston Plantation. When Monday rolls around, it’s Columbus Day and you discover the party is over and decide that you will be back next year.
Before you run off to plan your trip for next year, I must tell you about the campground. The Firemen’s Campground & Tent City is one of the best things about this festival. The campground was alive and jumping this year. There were fire side jam sessions going on in quite a few spots. If you plan to come to Helena/West Helena for Da Biscuit I strongly encourage you to camp. The camping experience may not be for everybody, so the Fire Department offers a weekend pass for $10 so non campers can come on down and join the party.
See Ya at Da Biscuit next October, check out my photo montage with music from Michael Burks :