Text and photos by Ali Kaufman
This past April, I made my first trip down the “Blues Highway” (US Route 61). That trip took me as far as Clarksdale, MS in time for the Juke Joint Festival, with its welcoming, community spirit and support of the blues’ history and artistry. I knew I had to come back down the Blues Highway—and that I did, for the 29th King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, AR.
King Biscuit’s reputation preceded itself, its rich history connected to the longest-running daily radio show in Ameican history, King Biscuit Time, sponsored by King Biscuit Flour and made famous by the countless greats that have performed on it over the decades. Gathering musicians on the banks of the Mississippi since 1986, the festival celebrates the blues and has become an important date on music lovers’ calendars.
The festival’s five stages are spread out across several blocks with the Main Stage located on the gently sloped, grassy levee, ensuring good visibility even when it gets crowded—and it does get crowded.
Thursday night went off beautifully with a full moon over the levee and Guitar Shorty and Kevin Herrera nailing it on stage. From there, standouts included Demetria Taylor (daughter of Eddie Taylor), whose magnetic voice spilled out of the Delta Cultural Center and pulled us all in, St. Louis’ Funky Butt Brass Band and British guitarist Matt Schofield, who proved you don’t have to be from the home of the blues to play with true blues feeling. “Newcomer” Leo “Bud” Welch, who has been enjoying a busy year of international touring since releasing his debut album in January at age 81, was a joy to experience (look out for an upcoming documentary about his journey). Cash McCall Band and Jim Koeppel are currently recording an album that will hopefully recreate what they gave us on Saturday at King Biscuit: magic. Throughout the weekend, there was plenty of magic to be found, particularly when the legendary “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, host of King Biscuit Time since 1951, introduced lifelong friend and harmonica titan James Cotton—it was a moment.
As with all festivals, weather plays a crucial part and, unfortunately, Mother Nature was to blame for Bobby Rush, among others, not being able to play. Nevertheless, the overall feeling was celebratory and, besides, a rainy day in the Delta is often better than a sunny day anywhere else.
To continue your musical journey in and around Helena, check out the following places, just a few of the many: