Review of Eureka Springs blues fest (long)
Tue Jun 2 17:35:55 EDT 1998
On May 28-31, I went to the tenth annual Eureka Springs blues festival. This
is sort of like a giant pub-crawl, with main shows in the city auditorium, and
tons of other acts in nearby clubs. Counting shows in clubs not offically part
of the fest, there were about 40 national and major regional acts in town.
Eureka Springs, in the northwest corner of Arkansas, is an old spa town. Jimmy
Thackery now lives there, so he became sort of the unoffical jam host. The
weather was hot and sunny. I have no idea how many people were in town, but
there were more than last year. Just about all the shows were full. The
volunteer staff, from the Eureka Springs Blues Society, looked overloaded at
Thursday night was the preview show in the Auditorium. First up was Reba
Russell. She was the biggest surprise for me during the whole fest. Great,
big, sexy voice. Great, sexy stage presence. She's from Memphis, has two self-
produced CDs out there somewhere. Band had a harp/keyboard player, real young
guitarist, drummer, and bass player. She did mostly upbeat numbers, but did a
fine, slow cover of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love."
Chico Banks and his band were next. Banks is young, from Chicago, and plays a
hot guitar. Lady sitting in front of me yelled that he had a great ass too.
Real funky five-string bass player, drummer, and keyboardist playing behind
him. He didn't sing much, and played a lot of guitar solos. I think he only
sang one or two verses on a long cover of "Born under a Bad Sign." Did "Stormy
Monday," stopping to show the crowd how B.B. King would play solos on it, how
Stevie Ray would play it, how Albert King would play it. Crowd loved it, but I
There followed the first of the jams. Jimmy Thackery with his bassist and
drummer started off with Earl and Earnie Cates on second guitar and keyboards.
I could swear that Thackery sang better than he did last year, literally
growling out lyrics. After a few tunes, they brought in Tab Benoit and then
Hadden Sayers, a hot young guitarist from Texas. Good jam, but I soon sneaked
out to catch the last set of the Bluesbirds, out of Shreveport, who were
playing at a hotel lounge outside of town. Small crowd, as everyone else was
downtown, but I had a good time anyway, listening to slide guitar blues and
some swamp rock.
Friday was hot. I wandered around the shops of the town for awhile and then
went into the bluestent. This covered an acoustic stage, the t-shirt booth,
some food stands, and two (!) cigar booths. I sat down to listen to Larry
Johnson. Johnson had played as a young man with Blind Rev. Gary Davis, and
said he was 60 (he looked well younger). Played very good guitar, using finger
and thumb picks. He was in a far better mood than when I saw him in Helena
(lousy sound system then). Sang well and picked these wonderful sweet-sour
notes on his flattop. Sang "Mr. Luck," "Mean Old Frisco," and "Fool's
Paradise," which turned into "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and other songs.
Closed on "Old Time Religion." Small but very appreciative crowd.
The afternoon acoustic jam was next, featuring Jimmy Thackery, Tab Benoit, and
Joe Louis Walker. This was an hour show, with the three of them handing off
vocals and solos on several numbers. Thackery and Walker played amplified
flattops, while Benoit alternated between a National resonator guitar and a
flattop. The encore was "If This is Love," a great, bitter song that Joe Louis
Walker had written for Thackery's latest album.
I was able to catch the end of Reba Russell's set then at a club called Eureka
Live. Place was jammed. Reba still sang fantastic, doing Janis' "A Piece of My
Heart." The band also did an Albert King tribute based around the young
Since the Friday night main show, Honeyboy Edwards and Charles Brown, didn't
start until 7:00, I wandered around, ate some overpriced red beans and rice,
and tried to figure out the schedule. Nearly all of the acts began at the same
time, with the club acts playing an hour-plus set before the room was turned
(most everyone being eased out to make room for the next crowd). There wasn't
any point of trying to make any show before 7:00, so I kept walking. About
6:25, I'm out by the Auditorium front door, and see an elderly black man,
dressed in jeans, denim vest, and ball cap standing out front with a woman. He
has a small goatee. Honeyboy Edwards!
I walk up to shake his hand and thank him for being there, joking that if they
wouldn't let him in this early, then we were all in trouble. Turns out, they
really can't get into the building. Either no one inside saw them to unlock
the door or they had gone to the wrong door. My converasation with this
83-year-old legend mainly consists of his asking what time I have, his looking
at my watch, his looking back at his watch, and muttering about how the
contract is for him to start playing at 7:00. Flabbergasted, I go to the blues
tent to drag a staff majordomo out to let Honeyboy into the Hall so he can
The upshot is that the show was great. Honeyboy came out on time, dressed just
the same as he had been outside. Played alone but with much energy, often
shaking his fire-red guitar towards the mike. His voice was rough with age,
but his playing was strong, with maybe a few funny, wild notes. He played a
variety of songs, sometimes using finger and thumb picks. He played a very
wicked slide on "Sweet Home Chicago." Among others, he played "That's Alright"
and "You're the Only One." Finished up with his version of "Catfish Blues."
Show was over all too soon.
In a few minutes, Charles Brown's combo came out. Danny Caron on guitar,
Clifford Solomon on sax, Ruth Davies on upright bass, and a young drummer.
Brown, who I've been told is suffering from arthritis, was brought out in a
wheelchair and eased onto a huge pillow on the piano bench. He played and sang
fine though. He wore a cap and a dark velvet jacket edged with gold. They
played "These Blues," "Is You Is or Is You Ain't my Baby," "Drifting Blues,"
"Gee, You Look so Fine," and others. There was plenty of room for short but
tasty guitar and sax solos. I admit, though, that I spent much of the time
watching Ruth Davies, swaying with her beat behind her bass.
When the show was over, I was able to catch the end of Deborah Coleman's set
at Eureka Live. Place also was jammed packed, but I finally found a place to
stand at the side. It was a great set, perfect complement to the older
stylings of Honeyboy and Charles Brown. She played "Feelin' Alright," "Brick"
(one of Albert Collin's old songs), my favorite "My Heart Bleeds Blue" before
getting into a Jimi Hendrix theme, where her bass player did a funky solo on
his six-string bass. The crowd loved her, and she was playing much of the time
with a huge smile.
The late show I made it to was Bob Margolin, who was playing in the penthouse
ballroom of the Basin Park Hotel. Place was crowded, as was every club.
Margolin opened up with a small band: drummer and bass player. The bass player
even switched to harp on a few songs. Margolin, who sang pretty good, did some
of his own stuff and some Muddy classics. After a few songs, Jimmy Thackery
came out to play with Margolin (Thackery was everywhere during the fest).
After a few songs with them shifting guitar lead, Pinetop Perkins came out in
brown slacks, tan shirt, and a pale red fedora, and everything went into an
even higher gear. Perkins looked so small and wizened behind the electric
keyboard, but he boogie-woogied the room to its feet. Very fierce playing over
several songs. I didn't take many notes while he played, as I was enjoying it
too much. He did do "Caldonia" and closed on "I'm from Mississippi."
Saturday was even hotter and more humid. I got to the "Blueswoman Superjam"
late, as I foolishly thought I could find a parking space at one of the few
pay lots in town, so I wouldn't have to drag my camera around all day. I was
wrong, and wound up taking the car back to the motel and walking back to the
fest (which I had done every time anyway). The jam featured Joanna Connor,
Deborah Coleman, and Deanna Bogart. Connor played slide on her Gibson, while
Coleman played her Fender Telecaster. Bogart mainly was on keyboards, but did
shift over to sax on one song. After trading off solos for awhile, they
brought Reba Russell out to sing a great, very slow version of "You Shook
Me." The next song was a rocker with plenty of solo space, with Bogart's bass
player soloing too. Bogart then sang a little skat with Coleman responding
line-by-line on her guitar. They closed with a R&B version of "Everyday I Have
the Blues." Crowd loved it, and it was my favorite jam of the weekend.
After that show, I went to the bluestent and watched Larry Johnson prepare by
himself for his afternoon sets (staff was elsewhere again, I guess). Then I
popped into Eureka Live for a few minutes to catch a couple of songs from the
Bluesbirds again. Fine slide guitar from Buddy Flett, ala Elmore.
I wound up standing in line for about 15 minutes for the next main act, Jimmy
Thackery and John Mooney. Thackery, who wore black everyother time I saw him,
and Mooney were in big, flowery, tropical shirts and sunglasses. Mooney also
now sports a shaved head. It was an interesting scene. They mainly played
songs from an album they had recorded in Jamacia about 10 years ago. They
played amplified flattops, though Mooney switched over to an electric guitar
after awhile, joking that his way of playing acoustic guitar was having it
hooked up to two amps. Good playing, with a softer sound. They did a great
version of Percy Sledge's "Take Time to Know Her."
I had time to sit down to a good Italian dinner at Emilio's and wandered
around town. I was wearing one of Dick Waterman's shirts (Janis Joplin), and
got several good comments about it. The next show I could get in was Bogart
opening for Joe Louis Walker at the Cresent, a huge 1880s hotel way up the
hill. The crowd filled up the banquet-style seating by the time I trudged in.
Bogart played keyboards, with her drummer, bass player, and guitarist in
support. She started with "Hello," before boogie-woogieing through some
numbers. She gave a long introduction to "I'm Growing Older, But I'll be
Damned if I Grow Old," telling the crowd that she intended to dress sleazy
when she hit 89. I had seen her at Eureka Springs the year before, and
remembered how well she played keyboards, but I had forgotten her good, jazzy
voice. She played a little sax on "Lonely Nights." It was a great set and had
a lot of people up dancing.
The Bosstalkers came out next. Walker, dressed in black and wearing
sunglasses, was backed by keyboards, drums, a second guitar, a six-string bass
(either that or a third guitar), sax, and trumpet. The horn section also
doubled on special percussion. Fast and big sound. I admit I didn't get into
Walker's reedy voice, but he had even more people up dancing. It was a great
set, featuring "Mile High Club," "Blues of the Month Club," and "Rock Me
Baby." The finale was a slow-dance version of "Sugar Mama," with Walker doing
a squeaky harp solo of all things.
The final act that I was to see was Bernard Allison in a small club on the
other side of town. The place was hot and crowded, with barely space to stand
by the bar. The band was cooped up into a little box stage, the back wall of
which was lined with 6-x-6 egg carton dividers as acoustic tile. I was tired,
hot, and just didn't get into the music. Allison played three different
guitars, including his dad's custom Gibson shaped like the USA. Bernard has a
nice, rich, growling voice and is a firey guitar player. He did some nice fret
work on "Bad Love," but a lot of his solos on other songs seemed to me to be
just fast runs up and down the scale. The crowd loved it when he slowly
brought the guitar up to a scream, but I just didn't get into it.
I didn't stay for Sunday afternoon's gospel show (featuring the Ever Ready
Singers) or for Susan Tedeschi late Sunday night. Other acts I wish I had
seen: Kansas City's Millage Gilbert (who opened up Thursday night opposite the
Preview Show), Tommy Castro, Columbia Missouri's Chump Change, John Weston,
and Paula & the Pontiacs out of Louisiana.
All in all, it was a good fest. A little expensive and complicated, but a
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