29th King Biscuit Blues Festival to kick off in Helena
29th King Biscuit
When: Wednesday-Saturday, various times
Where: Cherry Street, Helena-West Helena
Admission: Main Stage, $30 single day ticket, $50 three-day ticket; other stages and Wednesday night Michael Burks Memorial Blues Jam free
“Don’t start me talkin’/ I’ll tell everything I know.”
— Sonny Boy Williamson
“Pass the biscuits! It’s King Biscuit Time!”
— “Sunshine” Sonny Payne
The 29th King Biscuit Blues Festival begins Wednesday in downtown Helena-West Helena and Dave Madlener can’t wait. He’ll be driving down from his hometown of Chicago to camp near the Mississippi River and immerse himself in blues and camaraderie for the duration of the festival.
“You can smell it in the air and feel it in the soil every October,” says Madlener, 51, during a lunch break from his Chicago city inspector’s job. He has been coming down for the past 10 years. “It’s just so special. The Biscuit has a magical feeling.”
This year’s festival is set to capture that special feeling once again, as the event, which started as a one-day concert in 1985, eases up on its third decade.
Almost 80 acts stretching over seven stages will be featured, from folk and acoustic blues to full-on electric blues and even a bit of that blues spawn, rock ’n’ roll. Of course, where there are blues and rock ’n’ roll, the sacred can’t be too far away, and the King Biscuit Festival takes care of that with its gospel stage. Away from the stages, buskers often stake out corners of Cherry Street and lay down their own versions of the blues.
And if the music isn’t enough, vendors selling food and crafts will set up shop up and down Cherry Street. There are also the Kenneth
Freemyer Memorial 5K and 10K runs beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday, a barbecue cook-off and the Call and Response Blues Symposium that will explore the origins of Delta blues and the festival, 12-1 p.m. and 1:15-2:15 p.m. Saturday at the Malco Theater on Cherry Street.
First-year festival executive director and longtime volunteer Linda Broome says there were between 30,000-40,000 visitors to last year’s festival, and she hopes to see as many or more this year. Travelers fill the town’s hotel rooms and bed and breakfasts, Broome says, and spots in the festival’s Tent City, a campground in the River Park with its $60 fee and run by the city’s fire department, fill up quickly on a first-come, firstserved basis.
“That’s a party within a party over there,” Broome says of the campground, adding that spaces start filling up early in the week.
Madlener loves the camping area, though October can be wet and chilly.
“I hope the weather’s good,” he says.
BIG STAGE GETS BIGGER
Among the changes this year, says Broome, is the expansion of the Lockwood-Stackhouse stage, which moves to a spot on the north end of Cherry Street across from the Phillips County Courthouse.
“It will be a huge venue,” says Broome, who hopes to slip away from her directing duties long enough to catch one of her favorites, Bobby Rush, perform at 8:50 p.m. Friday on the Lockwood-Stackhouse stage. “I always love to see him.”
Madlener’s also a fan. “I’d go just to watch Bobby Rush tell a story,” he says.
While most of the stages are free, the Main Stage, at the south end of Cherry Street where many fans supply their own chairs or spread out blankets to sit on the levee in front of the stage as the Mississippi River rolls by behind them, requires admission — $30 for a single day or $50 for three days. Broome says there will also be drinks sold at the Main Stage venue for those who have paid admission. Thinking of taking a cooler? Don’t. Coolers are not allowed.
Closing the proceedings from the Main Stage on Thursday night will be slide guitar king and three-time festival veteran Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings with special guest Sonny Landreth.
“It’s such a great, downhome festival,” Rogers — yes, Roy Rogers is his real name and, yes, he was named for the singing cowboy
— says from his home in the Sierra Nevada of California. “It does have a special place in my heart. You get such a slice of both the music and the South. And it really is representative of so many different traditions from that part of the country.”
Rogers, 64, and Louisiana’s Landreth are playing together for the first time in what he calls a “slide guitar summit.”
“It was at their instigation,” Rogers says of the festival bookers in the Sonny Boy Blues Society, who asked if he and Landreth would share the stage. “We’ll work footloose and fancy free. It’s going to be an interesting scenario.”
“Those are probably two of the best slide guitar players in the country, if not the world,” says longtime blues society member and festival emcee Bubba Sullivan.
Asked about some of the highlights this year, Sullivan said he expects a good crowd for the Michael Burks Memorial Jam on the Main Stage from 6-10 p.m. Wednesday honoring Camden bluesman Burks, who died May 6, 2012. Among the acts expected to play are Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers, who will also take the Main Stage at 12:40 p.m. Thursday.
Keep an eye on Guitar Shorty’s set on that Main Stage at 6:15 p.m. Thursday, Sullivan says. “We haven’t had him here in a while. He used to be able to turn a flip when he was playing guitar, though I don’t think he can do that anymore.”
Paul Thorn, James Cotton, Friday night headliner Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Hall and Wet Willie are all crowd favorites, Sullivan said.
Saturday night headliners Jimmy Vivino and the Black Italians are led by Vivino, who, in his day job, serves as Conan O’Brien’s musical conductor on Conan.
And speaking of day jobs, among the acts Madlener, the Chicago blues fan and president of the Windy City Blues Society, is anxious to see is Toronzo Cannon, the Chicago guitar slinger who also drives a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority.
“Toronzo is fantastic,” Madlener says. “Great guitarist, has a stylish stage presence and 21st-century lyrics to his songs.”
The festival has its roots in King Biscuit Time, the radio show on Helena-West Helena station KFFA-AM, 1360 that began in 1941 with musicians Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr. playing blues live on the air. It is the profoundly influential, harmonica-playing Williamson, who died May 25, 1965, and the image of him perched atop a corncob from the old Sonny Boy White Corn Meal label that give the festival its logo. Guitarist Lockwood, a Phillips County native and festival mainstay who died Nov. 21, 2006, is the source of half the Lockwood-Stackhouse Stage (the other source, guitarist Houston Stackhouse, played with Robert Nighthawk on King Biscuit Time).
The show won a George Foster Peabody Award in 1992 and is the longest-running daily show in the United States, according to its website. “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, who has been behind the board for the majority of King Biscuit Time broadcasts, still hosts the show each weekday from 12:15-12:45 p.m. on KFFA from the Delta Cultural Center on Cherry Street.
“I always wish I could spend more time there,” Madlener says during his lunch hour a few weeks before his annual sojourn South to hear the blues and meet up again with the friends he has made over the years. “The people are so nice and friendly and hospitable. They put on such a great show. I have to say, it’s my favorite festival. It can’t be duplicated. There is so much love and genuineness down there. That’s why I keep coming back.”
A schedule of performances is available at kingbiscuitfestival.com.