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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

 
Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
MISSISSIPPI DELTA BLUES & HERITAGE FESTIVAL
Greenville, Mississippi, September 16th 2006
Welcome to Greenville, Mississippi. In case you’ve forgotten it’s famous as the place where the levee burst in 1927, leading to the devastating flood of the Delta region, commemorated in song by Charley Patton (amongst others) in his ‘High water everywhere’. Charley, arguably the most influential of the Delta bluesmen, still lives close by in the corner of a largely forgotten cemetery, if you’re prepared to take the time to look. But otherwise Greenville is a largely forgotten place, apart from, that is, its three ‘riverboat’ casinos (only two of which have reopened following last year’s storms), questionable vehicles of economic regeneration. The broad boulevards of the semi-derelict downtown area are dusty and desolate – lined with long-time-closed shops and failed businesses – beyond are impoverished neighbourhoods leading up to Highway 61, at the North end bordered by the famous Nelson Street (celebrated by the late Little Milton in ‘Annie Mae’s café’). The guidebooks say “take care – this is a rough part of town”. We dine at Nelson Street’s Doe’s Eat House. There’s an armed guard outside. Welcome to Greenville.
We’re here for the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, a sort of week long jumbler of events that ends up with a ten hour ‘blues’ festival in a former cotton field just outside the town (apparently it’s an “historic” field, but I’m not sure why). It’s another Mississippi Delta day, and, excuse my French, it’s fucking hot. And unlike the smart locals we haven’t got awnings or gazebos to erect (behind the yellow tape of course), or fishing chairs to sit in (yes – they have them here too), and our New Orleans hats and quickly acquired ten dollar brollies (the ten dollar brolly man cashed up and left for a short break in Europe half way through the afternoon) offered little by way of real shade as the temperature soared.
The Reverend Joe Washington and the Gabriel Tones
We arrived early, anxious to catch veteran Delta bluesmen Eddie Cusic and T-Model Ford, who are preceded on stage by “the gospel band”, who turn out to be the Reverend Joe Washington and the Gabriel Tones. “Are there any church folk out there, are there any church folk out there?”. Well, judging by the bewildering number of churches we’ve passed on the road there must have been, but no one seems to want to ‘fess up, as the Reverend works up quite lather on the small stage. Actually it’s a relatively simple affair, nothing as sophisticated as even a small free festival in London – the stage is open and offers just a little shade from the sun, the sound system’s old fashioned, the mixing desk just sits on an old table next to us in the middle of the field.
The crowd is fairly sparse at first, but the field fills up as the afternoon wears on and the sun starts to go down. There are smoked sausages, barbecued ribs, hot hog’s maw tamales (they’re red hot!) and other similar delicacies on sale – oh yes, and the life saving lemonade and bags of ice – did I mention the big dogs? The audience is largely black and largely grey haired. There are several big family parties for whom this event, now in its 29th year, acts as an annual homecoming – some are even wearing the t-shirts. And there’s a lot of pride in the fact that people have come from all over the continent to be here – “Any folks in the house from Oklahoma?” It’s during one of these frequent roll calls that the photographer is moved to break cover, waving her arms hysterically when boogie pianist Jerry Kattawar drawled "Is there anyone in the house from England?”. “Ya’ll come here all the way from England?” asks one of our neighbours, incredulous, and ready to hand out first-aid chilled beers from his capacious ice-box.
Soon they’re running a book on how long we’ll stand the heat – “yo’ ever git this hot in London?” asks one anxious punter as he calculates his wager.
Eddie Cusic, T-Model Ford and Jerry Kattawar on the Juke Joint stage (right)
Both Cusic and Ford disappoint. They play out the stereotype of the old bluesman, but Cusic is barely in tune (I mean you don’t have to try and sound like a wax field recording made seventy years ago) and T-Model Ford, who impressed in front of an indifferent audience in London’s Barbican eighteen months ago, is, well, let’s say ‘emotional’. “It’s Jack Daniels time, yo’ just ‘scuse me while I take my medicine”. It seemed to be “Jack Daniels time” between each song (actually it was Canadian Club that I saw him clutching onto later in the afternoon, as he was helped off the Juke Stage, barely fit to play), which at least gave his bass player and drummer (his grandson who could hardly see above the cymbals) a few minutes to try and guess what song was coming next. Not great – but have a listen to his album, Pee Wee get my Gun, and you’ll have an idea what it could have been. The audience were polite but subdued – too hot to heckle, regarding this is almost as a penance they had to suffer before the fun started. That was with Mike and Jerry Kattawar’s crowd-pleasing boogie, with Jerry at the piano improvising salacious lyrics inspired by women in the crowd.
The Delta Blues Review
It seemed to go down very well, as did the Delta Blues Review. This is a massive assembly of largely local artistes featuring feisty pianist and singer Eden Brent, guitarist John Horton with his Albert King Flying V guitar (put to good use on ‘Born under a bad sign’), brassy blues diva Barbara Looney, the soulful vocalist Ricky Johnson, former Bobby Rush guitarist Mickey Rogers, and inimitable blues shouter, Mississippi Slim. With his multi-coloured hair, odd shoes and purple suit (with cape) he hollered and howled hysterically and did more to enliven the audience than anyone before him. And I think he must be older than my mum (and that’s old – sorry mum).
Big Bill Morganfield and his band must have come onto the stage around 4.30, and although the sun was getting lower the heat was still unremitting. As blues fans might have guessed, Big Bill is the son of Mackinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters. He’s released several CDs, tours most of the year, won a W C Handy award a few years ago as ‘Best New Blues Artist’ (fantastic – he’s about the same age as me), and is an all round ambassador for the blues and the work and memory of his father. But though he is a big man with a very good band he somehow fails to make much of an impact – maybe he was suffering from the heat too – and the strength of some of his material (“here’s a little song I wrote, it’s called ‘Hoochie Coochie girl’”) was suspect. But Serge, by that time it was too late. The shivering and dizziness that signify the onset of heat exhaustion were setting in, and despite the pleas of some of our gambling companions (“Oh no man, please, just ten more minutes”) we made a run for it – it was about 5.30, and 98 degrees. So I’m sad to report we missed crooning soulman Mel Waiters, the lascivious veteran Denise Lasalle, local boy turned Nashville hero Steve Azar (he had the biggest tour bus back stage), 1970’s chart-toppers the Manhattans, and saddest of all, the baddest man in blues, Whiskyfun’s favourite bawdy bluesman, Bobby Rush, whom I know would have been on fire in front of this crowd (and someone we ran into later told us he was). So as you can see not even really a big blues line-up – more I think a soulful homecoming than blues heritage.
Later, after a suitably air-conditioned cool couple of hours in a motel room we emerged for a late supper at the Shotgun Shack, where we enjoyed ice cold Buds and more Creole cuisine, to the gentle sound of a drum machine and a guitarist-singer with a late night radio voice (“Hi there folks, here’s one you may remember from back in the sixties, it’s that Cajun classic from Creedence Clearwater Revival…”). “You know”, he told us, “I should have started doing this years ago. I used to play when I was in the air force. Playing the guitar and singing helped the stress, it stopped me from killing people …”. Welcome to Greenville. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)



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