News and Views
Monday, August 29, 2005 7:06:03 AM
Update: 10/2005 added pics
I got back Tuesday morning (August 16th) from my blues vacation, and it has taken several days to recover. We packed a lot of stuff into the 9 days, and was pretty exhausted by the end. For one, the sun in Mississippi is extremely hot, and we were sitting in the hot sun a lot while at the blues festival. It never felt uncomfortable to me (I like the heat), but it was draining. I usually don't do trip reports, because they are boring, but here's one anyway, mostly to help my own ailing memory. Anyway, here is a rundown on what we did:
Poker in Biloxi
Day one: arrived in New Orleans and drove straight to Biloxi, Mississippi to stay at the Grand Casino. Biloxi was a really nice, laid-back beach town. It did not seem as crowded as some of the other beach towns I've been to, so will be a great choice for future beach trips. Also, the gambling is a plus. The casinos were nice, but the Grand had poker, which is the only kind of gambling that I do. I did not do as well as I hoped -- basically broke even after two days there.
The first night I did ok and walked away with a few bucks. I got stuck at a table with Mr. Annoying Man, who insisted on raising every single pot, whether he had anything or not. Mr. Annoying Man had a thick accent (I think Russian) and was talking crap the whole night. "I have more money than you'll ever see. I do this for fun. In Vegas we have $10,000 pots. I take all your money." Blah blah blah alllllll night. Mr. Annoying Man had the entire table in a bad mood and caused people to get up and leave. I was immediately to his right, which was a problem, so as soon as the guy to his left got up I switched seats so I could see him act before I had to throw money in the pot. This worked out much better and I walked away up for the night.
The second day was very long and frustrating, and left me a few hundred in the hole before dinner. Again, Mr. Annoying Man was making his rounds and ended up at our table for a little while. The entire table hated him in about 5 minutes. One guy said "I don't know why I hate him so much. I've never hated anyone at a table as much as that guy." After I lost my shirt, I threw a few bucks in a slot machine and made a quick $60.
After dinner, the last night at the Grand was good. I was at a pretty good table and staying ahead of the game. Then Mr. Annoying Man sat down again. Immediately, he had everyone riled up and hating him. After a while, I was determined to put him in his place. I was on the blinds, and Mr. Annoying Man threw in his obligatory raise and declared "I don't even look at my cards and I raise." I raised him with a 2-5 suited -- bad hand normally. Then the flop came down with a A-K-2. I had the pair of twos. . .pretty bad hand with A-K out there, but against Mr. Annoying Man and his blind raise I was pretty confident. He bet and I called. The next card was a 9. He bet again and I called again. Next card came down and was another 2 -- I had trip 2s. Mr. Annoying Man bet again, but this time I raised him. He looked at me and started jabbering: "There is no way you stayed in with a 2. . . .no, you couldn't have. I call." I showed my miserable little 5-2, which beat his pair of aces. He was pissed. "You play cards like that???". "Only against you" I stated, as I pulled in a very large pot. The guy next to me took him down in the next hand, and Mr. Annoying Man decided to leave. Good riddance. ;-)
Fun in Nawlins
The next day we drove back to New Orleans for a couple of days. What a great town. We stayed a couple blocks from the French Quarter and had a great time. The music is amazing on Bourbon Street -- at least a dozen or more clubs had live music. Most was either Jazz or Blues, with some Zydeco. We sat down in one club where a blues band with a 600lb+ singer was singing some blues and some soul. He wasn't bad, but the crowd was in a frenzy for some reason. They loved him. Obviously a local favorite. After that, we headed to another blues club with a really good band playing -- I wish I had gotten their name. I also picked up a 32-oz Hurricane for $8.50 with more alcohol in it than any drink I've ever had. I was dizzy after one drink and don't remember much after that. Apparently sometime during the evening I made the statement "the walls will protect you." How true.
The next day we had an evening flight to Memphis, but spent the day driving around the garden district in New Orleans looking at all the beautiful old homes, and also visiting one of the old cemeteries, which are famous for having above-ground crypts.
Trek to Memphis
Our flight to Memphis turned out to be cancelled. . . .what a nightmare. We cancelled our hotel reservation, but after finding out all our alternatives we decided to do some last minute scrambling and rent a car to make the 6-7 hour drive up through Mississippi to start the second leg of the trip -- the blues vacation. Unfortunately, by the time we called hotel back, the room was gone so we had to find other lodgings. We found a place right inside of Memphis by the airport (thanks to AAA and their travel guidebooks), where we had to return the the rental and pick up another rental (the originally scheduled rental.)
The trip would have been great in the daytime. . .we could have made a few stops along the way to see some notable blues sites (like Belzona, where Charlie Patton spent a night in jail and Bentonia, where Skip James lived) but it was pitch black and late. We arrived in Memphis and got to our hotel spent the rest of the evening walking around Beale Street in Memphis -- another famous hangout for blues musicians in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Today it is mostly a tourist trap, with a few clubs and live music, but in the old days it was a place where musicians hung out playing on street corners playing for tips. Howlin Wolf got his start in Memphis, as well as dozens of other great blues singers and musicians. We had a meal of hot tamales, chili, stew, and fries. Kind of an odd mix, but it tasted good after midnight. The main reason we ate was to taste the hot tamales, which we had never had before. They were pretty good, but at the time we didn't know any better. The real hot tamales were still days away in Mississippi. . . .
Moving to Robinsonville
Our hotel was only for the evening. The next morning (Thursday), we began our trip through the Delta and headed to our next hotel -- the Horseshoe Casino in Robinsonville (in Tunica County). The famous area known as the Delta is not a river delta (mouth of the river), but an almond-shaped area from Memphis to Vicksburg/Jackson, bordered by the Mississippi River on the west, and the hill country on the east (roughly at highway 55).
On the way, we tried to find the grave of Memphis Minnie, but were unsuccessful. If we had more time we would have searched a little longer, but we were headed to a show after settling in the hotel.
Robinsonville was a famous Robert Johnson hangout, but none of the old Robinsonville exists any more -- it's all casinos now, which has brought a lot of money into Mississippi since they were allowed to be built in '92. Still, the Horseshoe has probably the best blues museum in existence, which also contains one of the nicest old acoustic guitar collections I've ever seen. The museum is free and contains many artifacts from old blues singers (guitar cases, sheet music, pictures, autographs, and other assorted stuff.) While most of the guitars used by these musicians have long since vanished, the museum contains vintage guitars that are exact duplicates of guitars used by some of the great blues singers. For example, they have a Gibson guitar exactly as pictured in the famous photo of Robert Johnson. They also have the odd-shaped acoustic featured in a publicity shot of Big Bill Broonzy that made it's way to a cover of Young Big Bill Broonzy. Many others. The biographical material in the museum is top-notch as well.
Leaving the Horseshoe, we decided to play slots for a few minutes. We sat down at some $.25 slot machines, and within 5 minutes, I hit a $480 jackpot. While I was getting my payout, my wife hit $100 jackpot. Nice start to our Mississippi adventure. ;-)
Heading Down to Clarksdale
We drove down Highway 61 to Clarksdale. Clarksdale is undoubtedly the mecca for the blues. Clarksdale is where Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker came from, as well as countless other blues singers, and also where the blues is still thriving. It is the home of the Delta Blues Museum, and the home of a fairly new blues venue called Ground Zero, which was made to look like an old juke joint. Clarksdale is also where the 3-day Sunflower Blues and Gospel festival happens every year. It was just dumb luck that the week of vacation that I had to take in order to fit into my company's window just happened to fall on the week of the festival. Also, the festival coincided with the filming of a new blues documentary called "Native Sons", which was being filmed at the Ground Zero club.
We showed up in Clarksdale about 1:30 PM, which was enough time to walk around around the town and make a visit to the Cat Head store -- a place where one can find blues CDs, books, magazines, and artwork. The store is a treasure trove of blues material. I wish I had more cash and another suitcase to make a bunch of purchases, but I picked up a book called Blues Travelin', which details all the historical blues sites in Mississippi and where blues are happening now in Mississippi.
On the way out, we met Mr. Tater, a local Clarksdale personality and blues singer. Mr. Tater was very nice, but a little hard to understand. The best we could make out, he was playing Sunday evening at a local club and thought we might be interested in seeing his band, the Tater Tots. We told him we would try to make it.
Clarksdale looks like it could have come out of the 30s, 40s, or 50s -- much of the town has not changed in years. It's a small town of about 20,000 people, but the old section (where Ground Zero, the Delta Blues Museum, and Cat Head are located) is an amazing place, full of juke joints, historic blues sites, and good food.
There is the old WROX radio station, which is now somewhat of a museum, with most of the original 1940s equipment still there. This is a place where Ike Turner and Robert Nighthawk had radio shows, and where people like Sonny Boy Williamson, Sam Cooke, and Elvis, among others, performed live on the air. Cool stuff.
The Ground Zero is a great club set up to look like an old juke joint, with mis-matched tables and chairs, posters all over, christmas lights, and marking pen all over the walls. The food at the club was amazing also. I had a barbeque sundae, which was pork barbeque, baked beans, and cole slaw all in a tall sundae glass. It was the best barbeque I've had in a long time.
The 3 o'clock show at Ground Zero was Big George Brock and the Houserockers. Big George is 73 years old, and has played with Muddy Waters and other notables from the 50s/60s, but has recently released his debut CD. Watching his band is about as close as you can get to watching a 50s Chicago-style blues band. Great music, great time.
Next up (at 6pm) was Big Jack Johnson -- native of Clarksdale and one of the best blues singers/guitarists around. He has had several successful albums and is constantly touring. Big Jack used to drive an oil delivery truck in Clarksdale -- hence his nickname "Oilman". If B. B. King and Buddy Guy are the most well know bluesmen today, Big Jack deserves to be up there as well. He's that good.
At 9pm we had the pleasure to see 3 of the living legends of the blues -- Honeyboy Edwards (age 90), Sam Carr (age 79), and Pinetop Perkins (age 92.) Honeyboy Edwards started the show with an acoustic set. Honeyboy was a contemporary of Robert Johnson, and one of the only people still alive who knew Johnson. His playing and singing has not changed much in 60 years (he recorded for the Library of Congress in 1942). Sam Carr is a native of Mississippi and the son of the legendary Robert Nighthawk. He came out and played drums with Honeyboy for a few songs. A surprise guest was Bobby Rush, an amazing harmonica player, who sat in with Honeyboy. Harmonica playing has not been the same since the death of Big Walter Horton, but Bobby Rush is probably the best around these days still playing the old blues style of Little Walter and Big Walter.
Pinetop Perkins came out last and was amazing. He is widely regarded as one of the all-time great blues piano players, and his skills have not diminished over the years. The piano playing was great, and the show was entertaining. At the end, all the guys from the entire day got up for a jam session, which was a bit noisy but cool. All three shows were filmed for the Native Sons documentary, which should be on PBS soon.
Friday was our day of traveling through Mississippi. The festival was starting at 4:30PM, with a couple of minor events earlier, but we decided to make our way through the state to see a few things. First, we moved from the Horseshoe to another hotel in Batesville, slightly closer to Clarksdale, but in the opposite direction. From Batesville, we made a trip down south (Rt. 3) through Tutwiler. The town of Tutwiler was the smallest, poorest town I've seen, but was a famous stop for W. C. Handy in 1903. As the story goes, he was falling asleep on a bench at the train station when he heard a guy playing slide guitar with a knife. He thought it was the strangest music he ever heard, and memorized the phrasings. Later, he published what was regarded at the time as the first blues song, "Memphis Blues", followed by "St. Louis Blues." The spot in Tutwiler where this supposedly happened is marked by a small memorial.
Also in Tutwiler is the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka Rice Miller). Sonny Boy was one of the greatest harmonica players of all time. He didn't have the inventive fire of Little Walter, or the virtuosity of Big Walter Horton, but his harmonica was like an extension of his body -- he made it talk. His songs had some of the best lyrics in all of blues, and he was quite a personality, touring with the Stones and playing with Clapton and the Animals during the 60s. His grave is in a small section of woods next to a field next to a group of houses, with a small clearing leading to it. People stop by and leave whiskey, harmonicas, and guitar strings in tribute.
From Tutwiler, we took the 49E fork down to Greenwood. Greenwood is another sleepy old town like Clarksdale, with a rich blues tradition. Robert Johnson was said to have been killed at Three Forks near Greenwood and buried outside of Greenwood, so we set out to see the grave, and the Robert Johnson museum (the Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum) in the town of Greenwood. The museum is run by Stephen LaVere, who at one time managed the estate of Robert Johnson. There have been a few supposed gravesites of Robert Johnson, but the latest theory -- backed by some eye-witness accounts -- is that the grave is at the Little Zion church outside of town. We made the trek to the grave, got a few pictures, and headed back to Clarksdale.
Festival Day 1
We got to Clarksdale almost in time for the start of the festival -- we just caught the tail end of the local Clarksdale students at the Delta Blues Museum. There were maybe 200 people there already, but the food was already starting to smell really good. Aside from the blues, Mississippi is known for some amazing food -- barbeque, catfish, and hot tamales, among other things. I picked up a pork steak sandwich which was very tasty and large.
The lineup for the day was as follows:
4:30 p.m. – Delta Blues Museum students
5 p.m. – Marshall Drew Blues Band
6 p.m. – Pure Blues Express
7 p.m. – Barbara Looney and Mickey Rodgers
8 p.m. – Geneva Red & the Roadsters
9 p.m. – Shirley Brown
Each group put on a good show. Marshall Drew was a young white guy who played more of a rock/blues style, but sounded pretty good. We didn't have chairs, of course, so we made a quick trip after the band played to a Walmart. They had foldup chairs which made a huge difference in our festival enjoyment.
Geneva Red was a tall red-head from Wisconsin who played an amplified harmonica. She was good, but the sound was very noisy. She had put on a harmonica workshop the previous day, which I wanted to attend. Unfortunately, it conflicted with the show at the Ground Zero.
Shirley Brown was the headliner, and put on a really professional show -- more of a night-club singer doing soul/jazz than blues, but good nonetheless, and very entertaining.
The food was the standout, though. I have only had a few mind-altering food experiences in my life, but this was one of them. I picked up some ribs outside of the old Wade Walton barbershop (another famous place where Muddy, Sonny Boy, and others used to get their hair cut. The barber, Wade Walton, was also a recorded bluesman. He passed away a few years ago). You can get good ribs or bad ribs, but these were the best I've ever had -- big, meaty, smoky, and messy. I'm more impressed with good ribs than I am with 5-star restaurants and sit-down dinners. Next door to the ribs were some REAL hot tamales. Hot tamales are bits of meat coated with corn meal and rolled up in a corn husk with garlic, chili powder, and other spices. These tamales were incredible, and 1000% better than the imitations we had in Memphis. Needless to say, I will be learning how to make my own.
After the festival with all the food, drink, and beating-down sun, we were whipped and decided not to hit a juke joint and head back to the hotel. My wife did some research on the Internet on real estate in Clarksdale, Mississippi and found that many homes can be found for under $20,000, and one was as low as $4500. One thing that struck us about Mississippi during our entire time there: the people were all very friendly. Traveling around, you meet all sorts of people, but in Mississippi it just seemed very friendly and laid back. I can't say that about other places I've visited.
Festival Day 2
The next day we tried to get up early enough to make the 10AM show of Mr. Tater, but didn't wake up in time. We got to the festival just as he was getting off stage. I'm sure it would have been great to see him sing and play. The lineup at the first acoustic stage was as follows:
9:30 a.m. – Charlie Fowler Sr.
10 a.m. – Mr. Tater
10:30 a.m. – Pat Thomas
11:15 a.m. – Odell Harris
12 Noon – Robert Belfour
12:45 p.m. – Eddie Cusic
1:30 p.m. – Shardee and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Corp ending with procession to the Main Stage and Second Acoustic Stage
Pat Thomas is the son of local bluesman Son Thomas, who was also famous as a local artist. Pat Thomas keeps his dad's tradition going by playing blues and creating cat head drawings. His music was old-school; very similar to what you might have heard in the 20s and 30s.
At noon, Robert Belfour took the stage, and was the highlight of the entire festival. Belfour's sound was vaguely reminiscent of Lightnin' Hopkins, only with a percussive hill country feeling. His guitar playing was amazing -- repetitive, but intricate, which created a vibe and sucked you into his laid-back vocals. The guitar was tuned down about a step-and-a-half or two steps, which really makes the sound boom. His stage presence also made you watch -- very intense and serious about the music, but in between songs was very friendly and unassuming.
We left for the Delta Blues Museum, which we had to fit in before the end of the day. The museum had a lot of cool exhibits, such as Muddy Waters' cabin and the original Three Forks sign from the club where Robert Johnson was supposedly poisoned.
The main stage lineup was as follows:
2 p.m. – Earnest “Guitar” Roy & the Clarksdale Rockers
3 p.m. – Razorblade Blues Band
4 p.m. – Farmer John, Acoustic Set, opening for the Kenny Brown Band
5 p.m. – Wesley Jefferson Southern Soul Band
6 p.m. – Big T & The Family
7 p.m. – David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Sam Carr
The Early Wright & Julius Guy Award Presentations
8 p.m. – Super Chikan Johnson
9 p.m. – Charlie Musselwhite and the Charlie Musselwhite Band
We decided to move to the second acoustic stage instead, which had the following lineup:
1:30 p.m. – Louis “Gearshift” Youngblood
2:15 p.m. – Little Jimmy Reed
3 p.m. – Cadillac John & Bill Abel
3:45 p.m. – The Original Delta Fireballs featuring Geneva Red
4:30 p.m. – Terry “Harmonica” Bean
5:15 p.m. – Super Chikan Johnson
In between we got some great barbeque at Miss Del's General Store, and came across some young Japanese guys playing some down-and-dirty blues in front of a store for tips. They were doing old Muddy Waters tunes and other Chicago/Delta style blues with two guitars and a harmonica. These guys were great and I could have listened to them all day, but there was more blues to see.
Geneva Red did an acoustic set, which was much better than her full electric set the previous evening. The highlight, though, was Terry Harmonica Bean. He played guitar and harmonica and sang, while tapping his foot for the rythym. The guitar was hill country style (percussive and repetitive) and the harmonica playing was amazing. He really created a vibe with the beat, and was entertaining between songs ("thank you ladies and gentlemens" after every song). He's a young guy (mid-40s) and works in a furniture store by day and plays blues whenever he can. I picked up two self-produced CDs after the show.
James Super Chikan Johnson was also very good and one of the festival highlights. He is a local Clarksdale native, but also plays worldwide. He is also famous for his artwork and his homemade guitars made out of gas cans and painted. He played an acoustic/electric set and was very entertaining, as well as being a pretty good guitar player.
After Super Chikan, we moved to the main stage to see Big T & the Family, who was not bad. Between sets, an award was presented to the "son" of Robert Johnson (who won a court case declaring that he is, indeed, Robert Johnson's heir.)
Honeyboy Edwards and Sam Carr were on stage for a set, after which Super Chikan played an all-electric set with a full band. He really shined here, and was obviously a local favorite.
We also had to get another plate of the amazing ribs and hot tamales. There's nothing better than sitting in the sun eating ribs, listening to music, and then napping with a full belly.
Charlie Musselwhite was last. He plays the hell out of a harmonica, and is probably one of the best in the world. I don't care much for his vocal stylings, but when he plays he is amazing. The last song was his groundbreaking "Christo Redemptor", which has only improved in the 40 years since he first recorded it.
Again, the festival completely drained us and we did not go out to the blues clubs afterwards. I do regret not getting to a juke joint, but at the time we were completely whipped.
Last of the blues
Sunday was our last day for blues traveling, and we checked out of our hotel and headed to Clarksdale for the Cat Head Minifest, in front of the Cat Head store. On the way, we drove up to Friars Point (another famous Robert Johnson hangout) and saw the scenery before going back to Clarksdale. When we arrived, Big George Brock and the Houserockers were jamming and sounding pretty damn good.
We caught a few songs, but had to head over to the Delta Blues Museum for a standing-room-only informal talk by Charlie Musselwhite on his life and blues roots. For me, this was the coolest part of the trip. Charlie talked about growing up in Mississippi and Memphis running moonshine, and learning harmonica from masters like Little Walter and Big Walter, living with Big Joe Williams, and jamming with Muddy Waters, Johnny Young, Robert Nighthawk, and countless others. He had a million stories but only had an hour. He needs to write a book.
After the talk, we headed back to Cat Head and caught Little Jimmy Reed's set. As far as I know, he is no relation to Jimmy Reed, but he is truly a talented entertainer and quite a character. He sat behind a keyboard/sequencer that played the rythym tracks and sang/played guitar along with it. There was a little girl dancing about 5 or 6 years old who was as entertaining as the music, and Jimmy Reed got a kick out of it and was making funny comments like "I want to meet your momma" and tipped her $1. Reed was a good guitar player too.
After Jimmy Reed, there was another act before Robert Belfour was going to do a set, but it was getting late, and was incredibly hot, so we decided to can it and head to the hotel to spend our last evening playing poker, but we did end up getting a few CDs at Cat Head that would have been hard to find if not impossible to find anywhere else. I recommend the Robert Belfour CDs wholeheartedly. Even though they contain an annoying drum track on a few songs, they are a good representation of his music -- very heavy stuff for a guy with an acoustic guitar. We also got one by Mr. Tater (turned out he sounds pretty good), Super Chikan, and another by Terry Bean.
On the way back to Robinsonville and the Horseshoe Casino (where we were spending the last night) we headed up 61 and turned left at 49 to cross the bridge into Arkansas and visit Helena. It was Sunday, so the place was completely dead, but the old town had a lot of charm and history. Helena also has a blues festival every year, and was the location of the King Biscuit radio show back in the 40s, where Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Lockwood, and others got started.
We spent the last evening playing poker (breaking even), but it was pretty uneventful. The next day I did badly, as I usually do on the last day. Poker is a game of patience, and you tend to play differently knowing you have to leave in an hour or two. I always do best after sitting at a table for about 8-10 hours. Still, I was up for the trip and it was fun.
Driving to the airport we passed by Graceland -- it was going to be one of our stops, but we didn't realize it was Elvis week. There must have been about 20,000 people outside of Graceland camping out. Elvis may have left the building, but these people were still here to see it.
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