After the closing notes ring out at the mighty King Biscuit Blues Festival -- scheduled to take place in Helena, Arkansas, this weekend -- the 2004 blues season will grind to a halt. In the Mississippi Delta, it's been a rollin' and tumblin' year for the dozen or so festivals celebrating this indigenous music -- which, of course, is par for the course.
The best free event of the summer -- the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival, held in Clarksdale, the birthplace of such bluesmen as John Lee Hooker and Ike Turner -- loses out attendance-wise because it's scheduled for early August, typically the hottest part of the summer. This year, however, Clarksdale lucked out with a weekend of temperate weather which brought tens of thousands of fans from Memphis and beyond to this mid-sized Delta town. Festival organizers wisely focused on local talent, including workhorse players like Terry "Big T" Williams and Wesley Jefferson, hometown heroes Sam Carr, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, and Big Jack Johnson, and regional crowd-pleasers like Fat Possum recording artists T-Model Ford and Robert Belfour.
Downriver, the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival, scheduled for Greenville in mid-September, was unexpectedly cancelled -- then, at the last minute, city leaders decided to salvage the event. Citing a $1 million debt, festival organizers moved to a new location and scrapped the admission fee but failed to draw the crowds they expected.
In Greenwood's Whittington Park, Claud Johnson, heir to legendary guitarist Robert Johnson, held a festival in his father's honor on the same weekend as Clarksdale's Sunflower Blues Fest. The event, billed as the Robert Johnson Heritage & Blues Festival, featured headliners like Henry Gray, Honeyboy Edwards, and Luther Tatum -- but saddled with a $25 cover charge and dozens of lesser-known acts, it bombed with less than a hundred blues fans attending.
The organizers of these events -- and of smaller fests, like the Howlin' Wolf Blues Festival, held in West Point every Labor Day weekend, and the brand-new Mid-South Blues Festival in Southaven -- should study the model created by the King Biscuit Blues Festival, now in its 19th year.
Rayne Gordon, president of Helena's Sonny Boy Blues Society and a chairman for the King Biscuit Blues Festival, attributes the festival's long-running success to careful planning. "We work on the Biscuit 365 days a year, and during the event, we each put in from 80 to 110 hours," he says. "We're already working on next year."
Plus, Gordon explains, "We're a free festival, and we schedule 50 acts over three days that range across the genre. We feature traditional and upbeat blues, an acoustic stage, and a gospel component." The event, he adds, pulls in at least 80,000 fans -- tourism dollars that should have Greenwood, Greenville, and other Delta towns salivating.
Go to this year's King Biscuit Blues Festival for the headliners, which include Koko Taylor, Phil Guy, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown but stick around to see some familiar faces, including The Memphis Snake Doctors, Beale Street mainstay Barbara Blue, guitarists William Lee Ellis and Mark Lemhouse.
Finally, don't miss a panel discussion on Delta Blues: Myths, Legends, and Reality scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, October 9th, at the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena. Scholars Elijah Wald (author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues) and James Segrest and Mark Hoffman (co-authors of Moanin' at Midnight: The Life & Times of Howlin' Wolf) are sure to butt heads with Oxford, Mississippi-based photographer -- and tireless blues promoter -- Dick Waterman, author of Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive.
The schedule on the Sonny Boy Williamson Main Stage at King Biscuit is as follows:
Thursday: J.B. Ritchie, noon; Shannon Boshears, 12:45 p.m.; Charlotte Taylor and Gypsy Rain, 1:30 p.m.; emerging artists (to be announced), 2:15 p.m.; Diddley Squat, 3 p.m.; Zac Harmon & The Mid-South Blues Review, 4 p.m.; Daniel "Slick" Ballinger & The Soul Blues Boyz, 5 p.m.; Bobby Radcliff, 6:30 p.m.; Corey Harris & The 5 x 5 Band, 8:15 p.m.; Jimmy Thackery & The Drivers, 10 p.m.
Friday: Capital Offense, 11 a.m.; John Weston, noon; Sam Carr & The Delta Jukes, 1:15 p.m.; Eddie Bo, 2:35 p.m.; Toni Lynn Washington, 4 p.m.; Pinetop Perkins & Bob Margolin, 5:30 p.m.; Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, 7 p.m.; Kenny Neal, 8:45 p.m.; Koko Taylor, 10:30 p.m.
Saturday: Blind Mississippi Morris, noon; Craig Horton, 1:15 p.m.; Jessie Yawn, 2:35 p.m.; Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets, featuring Sam Myers, 4 p.m.; Robert Lockwood Jr., 5:30 p.m.; The Holmes Brothers, 7 p.m.; Marcia Ball, 8:30 p.m.; Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, 10:30 p.m. n