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The 2001 King Biscuit Blues Festival

Helena, Arkansas, October 4-6, 2001

by Kay Roybal

Written for Blues Revue magazine, reprinted with permission from the author. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Photos by Joe Lore.

King Biscuit Main Stage, 9:30am Saturday 10.06.2001, before start of the day's shows

Sonny Payne and Levon Helm on stage, 10.06.2001

Sonny "Boy" Payne, Levon Helm and Bubba Sullivan

Some of the crowd, Saturday 10.06.2001

Pinetop Perkins after his performance

Levon Helm & the Barn Burners on stage, King Bisbuit Blues Festival, 10.06.2001

Pat O'Shea and horn section

Festival poster

[More photos]

It's a fine day when a worthy cause is successful enough to honor its earliest supporters. At the 2001 King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, that day arrived for BluesAid, the non-profit arm of the Sonny Boy Blues Society that has staged King Biscuit for the past 16 years.

In between the Saturday performances of Robert Jr. Lockwood and Levon Helm and the Barn Burners, BluesAid chairman Bubba Sullivan handed out appreciation and plaques to Lockwood and Helm and other blues artists who were ground floor supporters including 2001 KBBF performers Pinetop Perkins, John Weston, San Carr and Bobby Rush. Radio host Sonny Payne was also honored, along with BluesAid house band the Cate Brothers, Kim Wilson and his sister, the late Katie Webster, James Cotton, John Kay, Buddy Miles and the Kentucky Headhunters.

BluesAid attempts to provide a safety net for blues musicians and their families who often lack health care and other forms of insurance. The hall of famers are all charter members of the talent pool that has participated in annual allstar shows, the highlight of BluesAid's fundraising efforts.

Bubba Sullivan hopes that current fundraising efforts will pay for a building to house the BluesAid Hall of Fame and a permanent home for the memorabilia now on display in his store, the Blues Corner. One of the best non-virtual blues records stores anywhere, the Blues Corner is located on prime Helena real estate at the corner of Cherry St. across from the festival's main entrance. Many of the artists who performed Saturday could be found there after their shows, signing CDs and hanging out.

One of the originators of the Sonny Boy Blues Society, Sullivan knows how to persevere and produce results from a lick and a prayer. BluesAid has paid for years of medicine for the late Frank Frost, a native Helena bluesman, and bought headstones for Frost, Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson's sisters. It also paid for the funeral of drummer Porky Hill of the Cate Brothers Band.

The first great idea to come from Sullivan and his cohorts has grown and prospered over the years. The King Biscuit festival's shows go on concurrently on four official stages, more if you count the unofficial street performers who can also draw crowds. You just can't see it all, but it's quite a scene. There is so much about the festival that's cool and distinctive, starting with the venue in the historic riverfront town, a huge part of the atmosphere that resonates along with the music. The audience -- tens of thousands strong this year - covered the grass that reaches to the brick walkway at the top of the levee. The choicest spots for chairs are on the railroad tracks since they're flat and those are staked out as soon as the gates open. On the other side of the levee, kids slide down the grassy slope towards the river on sleds made from cardboard boxes. A few of the more enterprising and athletic kids will show you backflips for a dollar. Or less if you negotiate.

There are preppy-looking men and women in suede and leather next to people who look like they've been living in a tent for a week. And maybe they have. The river park at the end of the levee walk is packed with campsites. Of all the artists who were present at the creation of the musical culture celebrated by the KBBF, none is more essential to the occasion than Robert Jr. Lockwood, stepson of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson's partner on the King Biscuit Time radio show that gives the festival its name. His appearance this year was honored by the crowd with respectful attention. After his tight, horn-fueled band got the crowd going, Lockwood showed he can still play that guitar. Clad in a white suit and boots, he played seated with great care and concentration. Of all the performers I saw, he seemed to honor the occasion with serious dignity.

Pinetop Perkins, another original King Biscuit Time radio show performer, was scheduled to play Friday but was rained out with the rest of the late-afternoon and evening schedule. Unlike the other performers, the 88-year-old Perkins didn't close down the clubs that night, but started off the Saturday lineup on the main stage with the Rusty Zinn Band. Like Lockwood, Perkins was dressed to kill in a maroon metallic pinstriped suit and captain's hat.

"Glad to be back in my hometown," he said from behind the piano before launching into Big Fat Mama, stomping time while pounding the keyboard with one hand and leading the band with the other. He ends with his great version of Got My Mojo Working, his calm, conversational singing voice letting the song speak for itself. Clarksdale also claims Perkins as a native. The day after his appearance at King Biscuit there was a shack dedication and homecoming party in the Commissary at the Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale.

Much later on Saturday, after the awards ceremony, with the sun going down and the barbeque smoke rising behind the catfish and corndog stands, another Helena native son, Levon Helm, took the stage with his band, the Barn Burners. The legendary singer and drummer for The Band, who grew up in nearby Marvell listening to King Biscuit Time, is arguably the most capable blues drummer playing today and the band is fronted by two young musicians from upstate New York who are equal to the company. Singer and harp man Chris O'Leary is a former Marine with powerful chops and a soulful delivery, and guitarist Pat O'Shea has a style that so much fun to watch the crowd was calling for more. Mr Used to Be, one of the band's original songs from their as-yet- unreleased CD was a highlight of the set. Boston's David Maxwell also shone on keyboards, and Earl Thomas from Memphis on bass and the Beale Street Horns made it all sound so sweet.

The core of the band has been together a few years and they all continue to stretch and take on nuances and depth in their roles like Helm always has in his. Theband is so tight they seamlessly keep up with Helm's signature tempo changes on I'm Ready and She's Into Something. While they all execute flawlessly, they are all visibly delighted with the results and Helm grins throughout and high-fives them all at the end of King of the Jungle, before coming back with the Evans Shuffle, where the final drum licks keep winding back up to find the groove again. It's become the band's signature gimmick, but it gets the house every time. The band gets the audience appreciation they deserve and Helm waves his drumsticks over his head in salute before leaving the stage

While the final day of the 2001 KBBF was a homecoming for many performers, a few others were back in the area for the first time in decades. The festival has a reputation for providing opportunities for new discoveries for fans. One of mine was discovered more than 30 years ago by Muddy Waters. Blues singer/songwriter and multi- instrumentalist Paul Oscher played harp in Muddy's band from 1967 to 1972 the first white bluesman to become a fulltime member of an important band. At the beginning of his set on the Houston Stackhouse stage, Oscher said the last time he was in the area was in the late '60s while travelling with Muddy Waters' band. On that tragic occasion, a car accident in Covington, Tennessee killed Waters' driver and others were seriously injured. Oscher said it was good to come back under better circumstances, and like most of the other harp players at this year's show, he said he was "so glad to be here in the home of Sonny Boy Williamson." Since his days in Muddy's band, Oscher has played with a Who's Who of blues greats and is at home on harp, guitar and keyboards.

"I try to play the blues on everything I put my hands on," he said. He often holds harps in both fists. One of them looks a yard long and sounds like a tuba. He plays guitar on his song Poor Man Blues, then piano on Blues Before Sunrise. He cheerfully admits to stealing from Otis Spann, who tutored him when they played together with Muddy Waters. He played a song on the big harp for Sonny Boy Williamson and another for Lockwood, whose show he urged the crowd not to miss.

Oscher was troubled by the sound, hearing some feedback onstage, but it sounded clear and powerful from the audience. The couple hundred fans at Oscher's show whistled and shouted encouragement while he played. They clearly liked his music and his style, cheering when he took out a little frustration on his guitar, commenting that "you gotta get mad at the blues sometimes." For all the ferocity of his delivery, he showed a sincere need to communicate his enthusiasm for the music he loves.

"Talent is not a gift, " he said. "The gift is that you fall in love with the music." All the other great moments are simply too numerous to mention: Larry Garner shouted out the lyrics to Cold Chills playing a huge white guitar, Billy Bob Arnold showed the crowd how he was singing I Ain't Got You "long before Eric Clapton and all those guys.. . They got it from Billy Bob." New Orleans' Anders Osborne slammed into Stone Drunk and Naked looking like a college kid in a buttoned-down shirt and crew neck sweater, accessorized with Mardi Gras beads, with his sousaphone player as a rhythm section. And on the street, Mojo Mike, who can't be 10 years old, plays a killer boogie shuffle on the harp like he was born to do it.

Having neglected to pace myself for this blues marathon, I couldn't stay with it until the end and regrettably missed Bobby Rush, who closed the show, but Bubba Sullivan said that "he was on fire, it was really something to see." Rush is also a BluesAid mainstay and the organization has been able to show its gratitude by helping to pay expenses for some of his band members involved in a tragic bus accident earlier this year that killed one of his dancers.

If you want to hear details about Rush's show at King Biscuit, you could call up Bubba and he'd give you the full report. That's the kind of enthusiastic blues fan he is. But while you're at it, make a donation to BluesAid.

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