Fat Possum Records has been packaging tours of its artists for several years. Label stalwarts like R. L. Burnside, Robert Cage, Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early have graced the stages of clubs across the country. Two other mainstays of the Fat Possum tours, James "T-Model" Ford and Paul "Wine" Jones have recently been joined by the label's newest find, Robert Belfour, for the latest edition of Fat Possum's Juke Joint Caravan.
Fresh from an appearance in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and on their way to another show in Iowa City, the Caravan made a stop at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis as part of the 23 day tour. The Caravan was a show of extremes; Fat Possum's newest artist (Robert Belfour); their youngest blues performer (Paul "Wine" Jones) and one of their oldest bluesmen (T-Model Ford@ age 79). It turned out to also be a show of differing styles and approaches to juke joint blues as one might hear in a wood framed building along a back country road in rural Mississippi.
Robert Belfour, from Red Bank, Mississippi, opened the early First Avenue show at about 6:30 in the evening. Decked out in a black coat and hat with a sand dollar hanging from a chain around his neck, Belfour performed as a solo act; just him and his acoustic guitar. Unfortunately, the guitar was over amplified through the sound system and more distorted that what can be heard on his debut Fat Possum CD, "What's Wrong With You." Nevertheless, Belfour put together a nice set of songs including several songs from his CD mixed with some nice covers like Muddy Water's "Catfish Blues," a fun version of "High Heeled Sneakers" and the Howlin' Wolf classic, "Evil." Belfour opened and closed his set with two of may favorite songs from the CD, "What's Wrong With You" and "Black Mattie," respectively. It was a nice start to the evening.
Next up was Paul "Wine" Jones, the youngest member of Fat Possum's blues stable. While Belfour conducted his show as a solo act, Jones played accompanied by a bass player (Eric) and drummer (Frank). Jones' sound was significantly harder than Belfour and probably more juke joint oriented with several extended jams during the set. Jones songlist was predominantly made up of cover tunes, including songs from his last Fat Possum CD, "Pucker Up Buttercup." Jones is not the best musician in the world, but he more than makes up for his deficiencies with tons of raw enthusiasm for what he is doing. He burned through his 60 minute set with songs that included, "If You Love Me Like You Say," "Pucker Up Buttercup" and "Dee Dee Dee." As was the case with Belfour earlier in the evening, Jones almost reluctantly ended his set with Muddy Water's "I Got My Mojo Working" and Little Milton's "Grits Ain't Groceries." The excitement of Jone's show set the stage for the Caravan's headliner, T-Model Ford.
I was lucky enough to sit with T-Model Ford for much of the evening, learning quite a bit about his life in 2 1/2 hours. Among other things, I learned that T-Model took up the guitar in 1958, never dreaming that he would ever be touring the world and playing his music. He also told me that he was hit in the head with a chair about a year ago and that, as a result, he has forgotten some of the songs that he used to play regularly. Disappointingly, I discovered that his long time drummer, Spam (a.k.a., James McLeeck), was no longer with him. It seems the two men had something of a falling out because of Spam's sister, who according to T-Model, "Doesn't like me very much." Eventually, Ford indicated that he would like to have his son playing drums with him, an idea that still seems to be in the works.
Of the three performers, Ford's sound was the cleanest and best mixed. Born in Forest, Mississippi and now living in Greenville, Mississippi, Ford performed more originals than the other two acts, including several songs from his latest CD, She Ain't None of Your'n." Ford opened his show with "Oh Yeah!," referring to himself as the "Taildragger" and backed by Frank on the drums. As the set continued, T-Model performed "Chicken Head Man" (my favorite song from the new CD), "Take A Ride With Me" and a great version of "Good Morning Little School Girl," among others. Later in the set, Ford was also joined on stage by Eric on bass, filling out the sound to the end of his show. At age 79, Ford is still an enthusiastic performer who admittedly loves his work. As I talked to T-Model, and listened to him play, it was clear that his enjoyment was genuine.
Ultimately, the Juke Joint Caravan put together an outstanding evening of rural, roots-style juke blues by Robert Belfour, Paul "Wine" Jones and T-Model Ford. The three men definitely had the juke joint feeling percolating at First Avenue, an experience that was well worth the price of admission.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.