Monday, October 16, 2006

It's still the Biscuit down in Helena


The weather last weekend, unlike in previous years, was perfect for the world’s premier blues festival in Helena.

Ninety-three-year-old Pinetop Perkins was holding forth on keyboards as fans kept arriving late in the afternoon to hear one of the two living legends (Robert Lockwood, Jr. was the other one, on whom more below) who played back in the 1940s on KFFA’s “King Biscuit Time” radio show in Helena — that’s some 65 years ago.

Pinetop was in top form, still looking dapper and portraying himself as a ladies man, at least in his songs: The blues, you see, isn’t just about being down in the dumps, but having a good time and making the ladies happy, even when you’re 93. Here’s hoping Pinetop plays in Helena at least till he’s 100 .

Robert Lockwood, who’s a couple of years younger than Pinetop, performed the next day with his band, as they have since 1986. We’ve heard them at least half a dozen times, but last weekend’s performance was the most memorable.

The band left the stage and Lockwood soloed on “Love in Vain,” which he probably learned from the king of the Delta blues, Robert Johnson, the song’s composer who, back in the 1930s, dated Lockwood’s mother up the highway in Turkey Scratch, which is near Marvell in Phillips County.

“Love in Vain,” which the Rolling Stones and other British rockers have appropriated for the last 40 years, is a blues classic with lyrics that will break your heart, which is how Lockwood sang it, strumming his guitar like Johnson had taught him.
It was the most moving performance we’ve heard at Helena since we first started attending some 15 years ago. We’ve heard some great ones, including the brilliant Otis Rush before his stroke, but Lockwood’s singing and playing, especially at his age, was unforgettable.

But the group that may have stolen the show for most festivalgoers was Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials from Chicago.
Wearing a fez like his uncle J.B. Hutto, the late slide guitarist who modeled his playing after Elmore James, Lil’ Ed Williams keeps the family tradition alive with his raucous blues.

He learned the blues from his uncle, but this may be a rare case where the student surpasses the master. To get a taste of their music, listen to the Blues Imperials’ latest CD, “Rattleshake” from Alligator. It’s house-rocking blues the label is famous for, with Lil’ Ed sounding eerily like Hutto (and looking like him, too), but, unlike J.B.’s singing, you can even understand his lyrics. “Rattleshake” gets repeat play in our family.

We couldn’t catch all the performers, even though we kept going between the main stage and the small stage a few blocks down the street. We missed Mississippi Heat, who played on the small stage the same time as Lockwood, who was, of course, on the main stage. But Mississippi Heat has a fine CD out from Delmark, “Live at Rosa’s Lounge,” which we suggest you check out.

The Helena festival can no longer use King Biscuit in its name since a New York company bought up the rights (which should be a capital offense), so the weekend musical bacchanalia, now in its 21st year, is called the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, but to diehard fans it’s still the Biscuit.

It’s too bad a Memphis outfit, with a reputation for presenting mediocre music on Beale Street, says it will stage a festival there with the King Biscuit name next spring. But what’s the point? King Biscuit was a Helena flour company and is still the name of the local blues radio program.

It’s so identified with southeast Arkansas, it makes no sense to take it anywhere else, although the company that bought the rights has a nationally syndicated radio program called the “King Biscuit Flower (sic) Hour.” You can’t explain corporate greed or stupidity.

The good news from the festival, which will always be the Biscuit to us, no matter what the corporate suits may say, is that some 90,000 fans were in Helena last weekend. Some of the staff wore “It’s still the Biscuit” T-shirts, but we didn’t see any for sale. Organizers should make more of them and encourage all attendees to buy one.

The state Parks and Tourism should also print up a couple of hundred thousand for sale to visitors at parks and rest stops.
Because it’s still the Biscuit.