Tuesday, August 13, 2019

#403 : Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival 2019

Clarksdale, Mississippi

August 8-10, 2019

By Phillip Smith; August 12 2019

I’ve visited Clarksdale several times over the past few years, but until this past weekend, my visits were solely to stop in at my favorite store, Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Art, to shop for blues-related music, books, and videos.  I was blessed to be invited along for an excursion to Mississippi by a wonderful group of blues aficionados ( Kyle, Kevin, Galen, Aaron, Jim, and Terri), this past weekend, and had an amazingly fun experience listening to many of the blues artists I have only written about the past few years.   It was great to actually see these artists in person, and in some cases, even meet, shake their hand, and share a few words.

On the trip down from Iowa, we had a stop-over in Memphis, Tennessee where we stayed one block off Beale Street at the renovated Chisca Hotel.  This historic landmark once housed WHBQ, the radio station which was the first to play Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright Mama” and launched the career of the King.  We grabbed a hearty bite to eat at the Blues Café and steeped in the music of the Eric Hughes Band at the Rum Boogie Café.

Upon arrival to Clarksdale, we stopped over at the Cathead for some shopping, before checking in to the Shack Up Inn, a unique and eclectic place to say the least.  This B&B (Bed and Beer) joint is a makeshift community of restored sharecropper shacks.  The lobby and bar are housed in a building which was once a cotton gin, and is chockful of oddities and vintage signage. I would love to have more time to just look around this place.   Later that evening had a fine dinner of grits, greens, and barbeque before heading over to Ground Zero Blues Club for the open jam hosted by the David Dunavant Band.  Jim, from our group, entertained a full house at the Ground Zero with a couple of songs on his beautiful hand-painted psychedelic-green guitar. That was very cool indeed.  We wrapped Thursday evening up at Red’s Juke Joint, to hear Terry “Harmonica” Bean.  The place also happened to be packed with blues fans from around the world.  Rightly named, the venue is illuminated by strings of red Christmas lights which stretch across the low hanging ceiling. 

Early Friday, we all loaded into a couple of cars to explore the delta region in search of gravesites and landmarks.  Included in the places we located were the markers for Aleck Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson II and two of the three known Robert Johnson markers.  We navigated to Tutwiler where W.C Handy was inspired to write the song “Yellow Dog Blues”, then headed to Moorhead, MS, where the Southern Railway crossed the Yazoo Delta (“Yellow Dog”).  The Crystal Grill in Greenwood served as the perfect lunching destination.  The hamburger and sweet potato fries were splendid, and I could not deny myself a delectable slice of their lemon ice-box pie.  It was so good; I’m still thinking of it three days later.  Before heading back to Clarksdale for the music festivities, we made a final stop outside the gates of Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary where many blues songs got their inspiration and where a fair share of bluesmen spent time.  It once served as temporary residence for ‘Bukka’ White, R.L. Burnside, and reportedly Sonny Boy Williamson II.  
Kicking things off on the main stage Friday night for the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival were The Delta Blues Museum Band, a group of very talented young music students being schooled in the Blues.  It’s a delight to see the torch being handed down to another generation.  It was also terrific to see Heather Crosse with Heavy Suga and the SweetTones.  Unfortunately, the electricity to the stage was knocked out, and the evening was cut short.  I reviewed her album Groovin’ at the Crosse Roads several years ago, and absolutely loved it.  

On Saturday, the festival features music on nine separate stages downtown, all of which are indoors, with the exception of the main stage.  The main stage sits next to the Delta Blues Museum where we began the day with an enlightening visit.  I definitely got my steps in, as I criss-crossed town, making stops at Ground Zero Blues Club, Levon’s Bar & Grill, Hambone Art & Music, Red’s Lounge, and The Blueberry Café to hear Kenny Brown, Pat Thomas, Deak Harp, Little Willie Farmer, Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean, Super Chikan, and Anthony ‘Big A’ Sherrod.  The weather was perfect as we settled in at the main stage for Big George Brock followed up by David Dunavent & EVOL Love.   

Closing the evening out at Hopson Plantation Commissary next door to the Shack Up Inn, I was captivated by an ensemble called Black Water Trio, a local Clarksdale group which normally plays as a three piece with two guitars and fiddle, but for this evening, they were a five-piece band complete with drummer and bass. I loved the unique blend of country-fried roots and rock.  They were an absolute blast, as was the whole trip.   

*All Photos by Phillip Smith

Kevin, Galen, Aaron, Kyle, and me on Beale Street

Eric Hughes Band at Rum Boogie Cafe

Hotel Chisca

Kyle and I arriving at Ground Zero

Ground Zero Blues Club

Blues Alley


In front of the Shack Up Inn

Play Pretty at the Shack Up Inn

David Dunavant at Ground Zero Blues Club

Terry 'Harmonica' Bean at Red's Lounge

Red's Lounge

At the Shack Up Inn

Shack Up Inn

Shack Up Inn

W.C. Handy marker at Tutwiler. Mississippi 

Tutwiler, Mississippi 

Sonny Boy Williamson II grave

Site of Emmett Till's Freedom Trail marker near Money, MS

Robert Johnson Blues at Little Zion Baptist Church, Greenwood, MS

Probably the true final resting place for Robert Johnson

Crystal Grill café in Greenwood, MS

Furry Lewis marker in Greenwood, MS
Robert Johnson marker purchased by Sony/Columbia Records near Morgan City, MS

Where the Souther;n Cross The Dog Blues Trail Marker in Moorhead, MS

Where the Southern Crosses the Yellow Dog Mississippi Historical marker in Moorhead, MS

Parchman Farms Blues marker

The Main Stage @ The Delta Blues Museum

Lady Trucker

Heather Crosse

The Shack Up Inn

The Shack Up Inn bar and stage

Groovy 'Super Chikan' guitars for sale at Shack Up Inn

My shack at The Shack Up Inn

Paramount Theater in Clarksdale, MS

Pat Thomas at Ground Zero Blues Club

Pat Thomas at Ground Zero Blues Club

Levon's Bar & Grill

Deak Harp at Levon's

Deak Harp

Clarksdale, MS

Little Willie Farmer at Red's

Red's Lounge

Deak's Place

Terry 'Harmonica' Bean at Levon's

Super Chikan at Bluesberry Cafe

Super Chikan at Bluesberry Cafe

Anthony 'Big A' Sherrod at Bluesberry Cafe
Big George Brock on the Main Stage

David Dunavent & EVOL Love on the Main Stage

Blackwater Trio at Hopson Plantation Commissary 

Websites of places mentioned:

Chisca Hotel – thechisca.com

Rum Boogie Café – rumboogie.com

Cathead Delta Blues and & Folk Art – cathead.biz

Shack Up Inn – shackupinn.com

Ground Zero Blues Club – groundzerobluesclub.com

Red’s Juke Joint – This is a juke joint son, there ain’t no website!

Delta Blues Museum – deltabluesmuseum.org

Levon’s Bar & Grill – levons.net

Hambone Art & Music – stanstreet.com

Hopson Plantation Commissary – hopsonplantation.com

Websites of artists mentioned:

Eric Hughes – erichughesband.com

Deak Harp – deakharp.com

Black Water Trio - blackwatertrio.com

Sunday, August 4, 2019

#402 : Prairie Dog Blues Festival - 2019

Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin
July 26-27, 2019

By Phillip Smith; August 3, 2019

I had an absolutely amazing time during the two days I spent at the Prairie Dog Blues Festival this year.  Besides the spectacular music, there was an amazing comradery between the blues fans.  Upon first arrival on Friday evening, I staked out some prime territory within the beer tent to see one my favorite acts Ghost Town Blues Band.  They tore it up on four separate sets that evening, playing all the songs I wanted to hear.  Their covers of “Come Together”, “Whipping Post”, and “Statesboro Blues” were superb as always.  It was great to catch up with those guys again.  Between the GTBB sets, I made sure to shimmy over to the main stage to see more outstanding performances from Tas Cru, Reverend Payton’s Big Damn Band, Toronzo Cannon, and Nikki Hill. 

Tas Cru and Mary Ann Casale teamed up to dazzle me with delight on “Heal My Soul”.  Casale cowrote this one with Tas for his acclaimed Memphis Song album.  It was cool to hear “Dirty Swerve” from Reverend Peyton.  That one definitely put the fans in dance mode.  Toronzo Cannon brought some of the best blues Chicago has to offer, and Nikki Hill commanded full attention for her powerful for her set of rockin’ soul.  She even busted out a little AC/DC with a nod to Bon Scott on “If You Want Blood / I’m a Rocker”.  

On the second day of the festival, I headed directly to the main stage to hear Craig Erickson and the Roadhouse Rockers.  The man is a powerhouse when it comes to playing guitar, and it is always a pleasure to see his band play.  ZZ Top tribute band Eliminator from Chicago lit up the crowd with nearly ninety minutes of dazzling showmanship and spot-on covers.  They were so fun to watch and hear.  I was so glad to have finally caught Eliza Neals in concert.  She has been on my radar ever since reviewing her 10,000 Feet Below album.  This is another act which I highly recommend.  Neals definitely puts the ‘rock’ in blues-rock, with her amazing vocals.  Popping over to the beer tent to hear The Kris Lager Band was a lot of fun as well.  The tent was filled to capacity, as they played their unique style of funky blues.  The evening was capped off with a searing performance from Anthony Gomes.  The first time I saw Gomes, he was opening for the king of blues himself, B.B. King.  This my third time seeing him, and he keeps upping his game every time.

Prairie Dog Blues Festival, which is held annually on the historic St. Feriole Island in Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin, is very organized and cuts no corners when it comes to booking talent.  I will definitely make a point of returning.  


* All Photos by Phillip Smith

Ghost Town Blues Band

Tas Cru

Rev Peyton's Big Damn Band

Toronzo Cannon

Nikki Hill

Craig Erickson and the Roadhouse Rockers


Eliza Neals

Kris Lager Band

Anthony Gomes