Duwayne Burnside’s biggest show of 2021 was at the W. C. Handy Music Festival in Henderson, Kentucky in June, a festival which is billed as the biggest outdoor music festival in the United States. Although we were not scheduled to play until Saturday, I decided to book a hotel room in Evansville, Indiana, and drive up the day before. So after work, I headed out from Millington up Highway 51. The weather was hot and sunny, but the drive was relatively pleasant. My car gave me no problems, and I stopped at Union City for a slice of pizza and a fountain drink, and then I headed on across Kentucky and into Evansville.
I had planned on eating at an outdoor bar and grill called The Rooftop, so I could enjoy the sunset over Evansville. As it was, I arrived in the city a little later than I had intended, and the sun went down almost as soon as I was seated. The place was crowded and cheerful, with a singer-songwriter performing, and bright lights strung across the seating area. Unfortunately, I discovered that The Rooftop was more of a place to drink and listen to music than a place to eat. The food was typical bar fare, and although it was not bad, it was neither outstanding nor memorable. The main star of the show were the evening views of downtown Evansville.
After I left The Rooftop, I could not find any coffee bars still open, so I headed back across the bridge to Henderson, Kentucky and the W. C. Handy Festival. One of the reasons I had wanted to come a day early was to see the Memphis rock-and-roll/blues guitarist Eric Gales, and Duwayne Burnside and his bassist Pinkie Pulliam were already in Henderson where the festival was taking place.
Finding parking in downtown Henderson was not at all the hassle I had expected it would be, and the festival, held in a large park along the Ohio River, was easy enough to find. On the other hand, the park was so crowded that it was hard to get anywhere near the stage. Because I didn’t find any coffee in Evansville, I was amazed and thrilled to find a Java Shakes food truck directly across the street from the main festival stage. Of course the prices were not cheap, but a mocha java shake was quite refreshing, and exactly what I had been wanting. Duwayne was backstage with Eric Gales, but Pinkie and I had some difficulty in getting backstage, at least at first. Eventually we were able to get the appropriate wristbands as performers and we were able to get backstage.
Hearing Eric Gales in person was amazing indeed. Although he burst onto the scene some years ago as a rock musician, the blues is never far away from his style, and his band was interesting as well, with two drummers, one of whom was his wife. His good natured talk with the crowd and his frank discussion of his addiction and recovery caught me by surprise, and I was especially impressed with his closing speech to the crowd; he pointed out that despite race or politics, music had brought all of them together on a certain level. Eric Gales’ awesome talent is surpassed only by his deep humility. It was an honor to see him in person.
Getting dinner in Clarksdale can be difficult during Juke Joint Festival, so this year I called ahead and made reservations at Levon’s so my friend and I would not have to wait for a table. But one of the cooler (and most mysterious) things about Clarksdale is the way poetic and inspirational slogans appear on the walls of abandoned buildings and walls around the town. This year, there was a new one across from the shuttered Delta Theatre, which read “Strength Lies Within,” a good slogan for my friend, and I photographed her beside it accordingly.
Although we had been told to expect a “modified” Juke Joint Fest due to the pandemic, the actual event proved to be not much different from ordinary years; certainly the crowds were just as large. The weather was beautiful, and one could not escape the feeling that things were slowly returning to some degree of familiarity. Perhaps there were fewer attendees from other countries, as travel between countries was still being affected by Covid-19, but there were far more people than I expected, many from out of state.
Of course there were changes, too, at least one of them sad, as Yazoo Pass restaurant and coffee bar in previous years would have been a hotbed of activity during the festival. This year, it was mostly closed, although it opened briefly in the afternoon for coffee and baked goods to go. Two new downtown lodgings had opened since last year, including the Travelers Hotel and the Auberge Hostel in the former Madidi Restaurant building. There were also many bright new murals in the alleys of downtown Clarksdale; not only did they brighten the environment, but they contained pithy slogans like “The only good border is a border collie,” and “The blues was born behind a mule.”
There did seem to be fewer vendors this year than in previous years, but the ones that were there had some very interesting artworks, hats, barbecue rubs and other items. Walking around and browsing took more than an hour. I eventually found a beautiful piece of wood art with a picture of the late fife and drum band leader Otha Turner burned into it. That I could not pass up, and at $40 it was basically a steal. By the time I got that item to my car, it was almost time for me to catch the next performers I wanted to see.
Although the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale typically fills up all hotel rooms in Coahoma County, sometimes something will open up in the last day or two before the festival as people cancel their trips, and so after weeks of fruitless searching, I had been able to eventually get a hotel room at the Quality Inn in Clarksdale, and therefore didn’t have to make the drive back and forth from Memphis. But I woke up early, and decided to head downtown in search of breakfast.
In a normal year, Yazoo Pass would have been my choice for breakfast, but they had been severely affected by the pandemic, and were not open on the morning of the festival. So the only option was Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes, a decent restaurant whose staff was harried by the flood of customers. I was fortunate, because I managed to get in just before the crowd swooped in, and already had a table before things got truly gridlocked. Although it had been expected that crowds would be down this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, crowds seemed about what would be expected for a Juke Joint Festival day, and there were few masks and not much social distancing. With many people getting vaccinated and case loads declining, a lot of people and places were beginning to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic life.
I leisurely sipped a cup of strong coffee and enjoyed my bacon-and-cheese omelette, hashbrowns, biscuit and pancakes, while blues fans from all over the country filled up every other available seat in the house. It was fun, and delicious.
Heading down toward Cat Head, I ran into DJ Hustleman from Neshoba County out in front of the old Club Vegas. He had not eaten yet and wanted to get caught up with me, so I led him down to Meraki Coffee Roasters, where I knew we could get right in and enjoy at least breakfast biscuits. In that regard, I was not disappointed. I opted for a pour-over coffee, and a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, which was delicious. Hustleman and I sat at a back table and spent some time getting each other up to date, and then I headed up to Delta Avenue to check out vendors and get ready for the first acts of the festival day. The only impact that the pandemic seemed to have was that there were fewer vendors. Even so, I found a very beautiful piece of etched wood-art in honor of the late fife-and-drum-band leader Othar Turner from Gravel Springs, outside Senatobia, and as the price was reasonable enough, I purchased it. Hustleman moved his car and then began playing his guitar on the sidewalk in front of Club Vegas. It was a great beginning to the day.
On and off over the last few years, I have been playing with Duwayne Burnside, the extraordinary blues guitarist and son of Hill Country blues great R. L. Burnside. Our rehearsals recently have been in Holly Springs, but up until last weekend, I never noticed the work of folk art on what appears to be a garage behind a house at West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street. “The Color of My Skin Is Not A Weapon,” says one sign, while the other proclaims “White Silence=White Consent.” Both are surrounded by African masks.
Down Boundary Street to the south toward Highway 7, I noticed another building for the first time, a large two-story building with a chimney at both ends which looked quite historic, but which for some reason I had never noticed before. It looked to be quite old, but I had no idea exactly how old it actually is. The building, once the University of Holly Springs, was built in 1837! It later housed a boys’ school called the Chalmers Institute. Although it looks abandoned, it is apparently in the process of being restored, and will supposedly become a venue for music concerts, weddings and receptions.
Memphis has lots of pizza restaurants, but a hip-hop-themed pizza restaurant is a whole different thing altogether. Slim & Husky’s Pizza Beeria, a Memphis branch of a Nashville-based chain, was eagerly anticipated locally, and is located in a historic business across from the former home of the Commercial-Appeal newspaper on Union Avenue just east of downtown. The concept was founded by three friends and former football players from Tennessee State University who wanted to provide jobs, food and community to the North Nashville neighborhood where the first location was started. With locations now in Antioch, Tennessee, Sacramento, Atlanta and Memphis, Slim & Husky’s seems well on its way to becoming an institution.
The basic food concept on which Slim & Husky’s is based will be familiar to many; an individual-sized pizza concept in which customers can choose from a vast array of toppings at no extra cost. The basic idea entered the Memphis market much earlier in the form of Pyro’s Fire Fresh Pizza, but Slim & Husky’s is at once quite different; the pizzas are rectangular rather than round, and there are two different sizes, the “slim” and the slightly larger “husky.” I was also impressed with the high quality of the ingredients. There is an array of pre-planned pizza varieties, including the unique PREAM, which stands for Pizza Rules Everything Around Me; when one of these is ordered, a bell is rung and the staff chants the slogan. Customers can also plan their own pizzas from a vast array of sauces and toppings.
The other thing that really sets Slim & Husky’s apart is its embrace of hip-hop culture. The walls include paintings of such Memphis rap legends as Eightball and MJG and Playa Fly. These artists had signed their pictures on the restaurant’s opening day. The soundtrack overhead is also hip-hop; a warning on the door indicates that explicit lyrics are possible, but I have yet to hear any when I have visited. The music gives the brightly-painted restaurant a bouncy, upbeat vibe.
Finally, no dinner would be complete without dessert, and The Rollout is Slim & Husky’s dessert department, offering an astonishing array of five different cinnamon rolls. On my first visit, I tried one of the basic OG S & H House Rolls, which are basically warm, gooey, moist cinnamon rolls, and one of the Cookie Monsta rolls, which feature white chocolate sauce, Oreo cookies and peanut butter crumbles. I came away pleasantly full and imbued with a sense of fun and community.
Memphis is known for great barbecue, but strangely, barbecue is rarer in Mississippi, so when a new place appeared in the town of Coldwater, in Tate County, advertising itself as “blues and barbecue,” my interest was piqued, to say the least.
Coldwater is an interesting town in its own right, having been founded by the Federal government in 1942, to replace an older town of Coldwater that was flooded by the construction of Arkabutla Dam and Lake. The old town had been something of a prosaic railroad town with a traditional grid pattern of streets, but the new town was designed by an urban planner in Memphis, with curved streets typical of subdivisions. Highway 51 was four-laned and given service roads on either side, and a long, rectangular square was developed instead of the traditional four-square parks that older Southern towns were built around. Many of the old town’s houses and businesses were disassembled and trucked to the new site prior to the lake bed being filled.
But Coldwater has not been a place for eating out, or for live music, as a rule. Part of the problem was that until a few years ago, Tate County did not permit any alcohol sales, which pushed restaurants, clubs and live music to the neighboring county of Panola, where Como developed a sort of rural equivalent of Beale Street along its Main Street. So I was curious to check out this new restaurant and see what it was about.
Red’s Coldwater BBQ and Blues, despite the name, has no connection to the famous Red’s Juke Joint in Clarksdale. The latter is primarily a blues venue, the former a restaurant. But the decor of the new Coldwater restaurant does emphasize blues and music, with a piano, saxophone and other instruments on the walls, and cheerful bright colors and lights everywhere. The back room has a fairly small stage, which is used for bands on nights when the place has live music. Despite the name, the emphasis currently seems more on country music than blues, but Red’s features a weekly jam session on Thursdays, and karaoke on Fridays. The large, circular kitchen out back resembles a grain silo, and behind it is an old, historic smokehouse that was full of smoking meat when it was shown to me. It smelled delicious. There is apparently ample room for outdoor music events in warmer weather.
As for the food—delicious, but some words of caution are in order, as things are done a little differently at Red’s. The menu is quite simple, as there are basically two choices: three meats and two sides for $15, or one sandwich and one side for $10. Ordering is done buffet style; the meat choices are pork shoulder, brisket and pulled chicken, and the sides include potato hash (which has onions and peppers) and homemade macaroni and cheese. Drinks are from cold cans. It’s hard to get decent brisket outside of Texas, but Red’s has decent brisket, and in fact all the meats were really good. As for the sides, I was especially impressed with the macaroni and cheese, which had a dark golden color and sharp cheese flavor.
The owner indicates that he intends to add blues to the live entertainment mix in coming weeks, so I look forward to that. Live music opportunities are seriously lacking in Tate and Panola Counties.
Halloween this year fell on a Saturday, and early in the afternoon, I drove over to Backermann’s Country Market in Whiteville, Tennessee, an Amish bakery known for its fried pies and other desserts. I had hoped to buy a chocolate peanut butter pie to take back home, but to my disappointment, I found that they do not stock them, and only bake them when ordered. I ended up not buying anything, and upon my return to Somerville in Fayette County, discovered that the new coffee bar I heard about there had closed at 3 PM. So I decided to head down to Moscow and into Mississippi on my way to Como.
With my car having been in the shop for two months, this was my first opportunity to visit Como in some time, and I had heard that Micol Davis of the band Blue Mother Tupelo had opened a coffee bar there called Como Coffee Stop. As it turned out, the new coffee shop is in the former Delta Recording Service building next to the post office, which has more recently been an ice cream parlor, an arts and crafts store, and a drum lesson studio (at least in the back room). The Coffee Stop is a business born of necessity, as the COVID pandemic has canceled almost all of Blue Mother Tupelo’s shows; for now, it does not have an espresso machine, but serves brewed Community Coffee and baked goods. I enjoyed visiting with Micol, and had planned on walking down to Windy City Grille for a dinner, but my friend Sherena Boyce (R. L.’s daughter) called me and wanted to go to Tribecca Allie Cafe in Sardis.
So I drove back to Senatobia to pick her up, and we rode down to Sardis to Tribecca, which has been proclaimed some of the best pizza in the United States. After a period of time when they were closed to inside dining and allowing to-go orders only, they are now back to allowing at least limited dine-in service. The pizzas at Tribecca are unique because they are cooked over a wood fire, which imparts a special flavor to them. After dinner, we were invited by our waitress to attend the Panola Playhouse’s performance of Little Shop of Horrors next door, but Sherena did not particularly want to go, and I was tired. It was late enough that trick or treating was largely over, and so we both went home.
The sudden closure of everything in mid-March due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on all live music, including the blues. Nearly everything was closed down through April, but as weather warmed up in May, things began to slowly reopen, and I began to venture out more. Having acquired an iPhone 11, I decided to experiment with its photo capabilities, using some of my favorite photographic apps. I am especially partial to one called Filca, which lets you photograph with filters based on popular color and black-and-white films. The Agfa and Ilford filters really do resemble the old films they are based on, and the effects are really neat. Furthermore, the iPhone 11 boasts by far the best camera ever on an Apple phone.
Although live concerts did not resume in May, several artists performed live concerts intended for streaming. Duwayne Burnside did such a show outdoors at Red Banks in Marshall County, and the next day R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm did one at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale for the virtual Oxford Blues Fest.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.