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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Helena, Arkansas, October 9th-11th, 2008
We’ve crossed the Mississippi to Helena, Arkansas. The reason we’re here is Aleck “Rice” Miller, otherwise known as Sonny Boy Williamson (the second), arguably the greatest and most influential blues harmonica player. This once busy and prosperous river port was a regular haunt for blues artists - its bars, brothels and jook joints offering multiple opportunities to make some cash. Sonny Boy Williamson
Robert Johnson lived here towards the end of his short life. Williamson, who played with Johnson, and is one of the few sources of the largely hearsay information that exists about his death, began broadcasting on a local radio station here in 1941, along with guitarist Robert Lockwood Jnr. (Johnson’s son). Sonny Boy
Known as “King Biscuit Time” – it was sponsored by the manufacturers of King Biscuit Flour - it was the first blues radio show – with a live studio performance format that lasted for almost thirty years, witnessing a procession of now legendary players through its door. It brought Williamson, and others like him, to the attention of recording studios, thus bringing the blues to a wider world. Sonny Payne
And it’s still broadcast today, by veteran DJ Sonny Payne, (who started working on the show in 1953) from the Delta Cultural Centre on Cherry Street. To celebrate this achievement, the King Biscuit Blues Festival was established in 1986.
Now known as the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (somewhat to the chagrin of old timers, who whilst happy to take State funding to support the event, appear to resent the loss of the original name. What many still seem to delight in referring to seditiously as “the Biscuit” is now the largest free blues festival in the world, running over three stages over three days. During which, this largely forgotten and derelict town (many main street shops are empty and boarded up, but if you visit, do call in to the Gist Music Company, where we enjoyed a marvellous conversation and for some reason bought a washboard) is transformed into a vibrant throng of over 100,000 people. Visitors coming from all over the United States (and the world) mix with after-work and weekend locals, filling its streets. Food vendors offer a variety of preposterous cholesterol-fuelled dishes, under the disapproving but visibly ineffective (if our plates were anything to go by) eye of a stall promoting healthy eating, run by the Government’s ‘Nutrition Intervention Research Initiative’. And busking musicians line the street, playing for tips, and selling a multiplicity of CDs. Food
Am I wrong, or is this Blues Heaven?
The main stage is on the levee – and you might be forgiven at first sight for thinking that it’s really just Cropredy by the Mississippi. Grey hairs, grey beards, pot-bellies and fishing chairs abound (along with the obligatory coolers). Veterans proudly wear their oldest Biscuit shirts, many are sitting in the same places that they’ve occupied for years (some simply chain their chairs down to the old railway lines that run through the auditorium and leave them there for three days) and there’s a friendly and familiar air about the place that makes it altogether agreeable. If they’ve one grumble (apart from the heat, of course) it’s that the line-up “isn’t as traditional” as it’s been in the past. That of course raises some interesting questions. The Festival has hosted a variety of local blues legends in the past, but the fact remains that they are becoming few and far between, and there is a uncomfortable sense of voyeurism in the air as the crowd fawn on those ageing stars who do appear on the bill, desperately trying to get their photographs before, as it were, they check out.
Mudbone (L) and Terry 'Harmonica' Bean (R)
But I could see what some of the very hospitable people we talked with meant. There was a tendency in many of the acts towards an almost formulaic blues-rock which meant that after three days it was hard to tell some of them apart. On the first day, there were some outstanding young award-winning acts, such as Trampled Under Foot (winners of the 2008 International Blues Challenge): two brothers and a sister (with two left-handed guitarists) from Kansas, featuring some outstanding guitar playing from Nick Schnebelen. There was a curiosity from Moscow (Russia), Arsen Shomakhov, 2007’s Emerging Artist Winner, who played text-book riffs very nicely until he made a mistake, from which he invariably had great difficulty recovering.
Trampled Under Foot (L) and Hamilton Loomis (R)
Webb Wilder played some nice and good-humoured country-tinged blues-rock, and brought a whoop of “Nick Lowe!” from the crowd when he played ‘Ju ju man’, whilst Tinsley Ellis responded with a harder-edged rock sound and but some lamentably flat singing. Earlier local favourite, the hard-drinkin’ and hard talkin’ Reba Russell had delighted the crowd with her powerful singing and earthy lyrics (‘Toolbox blues’ should speak for itself). But I have to say that by day two, artistes such as Louisiana’s Hamilton Loomis (a protégé of the late Bo Diddley), Chicago’s soulful Carl Weathersby, New Orleans’ Mem Shannon and the Membership, and Michael Burks were beginning to merge somewhat seamlessly into a fairly predictable groove. This despite the fact that Shannon and Burks in particular were both excellent guitarists, the former from New Orleans leaning towards the blues, the latter a local Arkansas favourite towards heavier rock.
Carl Weathersby (L) and Tinsley Ellis (R)
The Revue-style format of the closing acts on the first two days - The Champions of R&B, featuring Earl Gaines, Johnny Jones and Al Garner, and the Severn Records Soul and Blues Revue with Lou Pride, Darrell Nulisch and Tad Robinson - also left some of the regulars yearning for the big names of yore. As it happens, they were not to be disappointed. (To be continued...) - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

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