Say “East Village” and most people probably think of New York City, but since the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library and the nearby headquarters of the Heifer Project International, a hip, trendy new district called the East Village has been developing in Little Rock, Arkansas east of I-30 and downtown. Perhaps the centerpiece of this district is a new coffee bar and roasters called Fidel and Company.
Fidel is a warm and welcoming spot; it’s sleek and modernistic, with plenty of glass, lighting and outdoor sunlight streaming in. There are varieties of Fidel roasted coffees, as well as Onyx coffees from Fayetteville, and plenty of inviting baked goods, both sweet and savory. There is also a lovely outdoor patio area, although it was too cold for people to make much use of it on the December day I was there.
I bought a bag of Fidel whole bean coffee to make at home, and it was great. Unfortunately, the website seems peculiarly geared to local orders for pick-up, so it does not currently seem possible to order bags of beans for mail order delivery. Hopefully, that will change in the near future.
Little Rock’s River Market District lies along President Clinton Avenue, and is the city’s premiere entertainment district, equivalent to Beale Street in Memphis, except for the fact that the River Market has a far better selection of shopping options as well as the clubs and restaurants. On a cold December Saturday, just down from the diner where I had eaten breakfast, I encountered a coffee bar called Nexus Coffee and Creative, and, on the theory that you cannot have too much coffee on a cold day, I headed inside. The inside was in fact warm and cheery, and the place has their own roastery where they roast their coffees. There is also a sort of local art/antique market inside, which had some interesting items, including cigar-box and coffee-can guitars. The intent of the place seems to be to function as a community hub, sort of the “third place” between home and work that Starbucks often talks about. But locally-owned entities like Nexus are better equipped to do this successfully than large corporate chains. And Nexus’ coffee was very good.
Down the block, I found the large Central Arkansas Library, but what attracted me inside of there was a used book store. Our library in Memphis has a good store of that sort, and the one in Little Rock was as well., There weren’t as many old books in Little Rock’s store, and the prices seemed a bit higher, but I left with four books, Unlike a lot of other entertainment districts, the River Market has something for day and night.
En route to my birthday weekend in New Orleans, I decided to stop off at the natural halfway point in Jackson, Mississippi for a rest, and my phone showed me a new coffee place in Highland Village called Coffee Prose, which I had not seen on previous visits to Jackson. Incredible as it may seem, on all my various visits to Jackson since my childhood, I have never had occasion to visit Highland Village shopping center, although it is one of the oldest shopping areas in the city. I found it beautifully decked out for Christmas, and the weather was pleasant enough that people were sitting outside in the courtyard.
Coffee Prose is not easy to find from the parking lot, but it is on the courtyard, and as the name suggests, it features an array of hot and cold coffee drinks, some baked goods, and a small selection of used books. The coffee was quite good and the prices were reasonable. I didn’t find anything amongst the books that I absolutely had to have, but the concept of combining books and coffee makes sense. Fueled with caffeine, I was able to get back on my way to the Big Easy. There is a second Coffee Prose in Jackson’s Midtown neighborhood as well.
Memphis once was challenged with regard to espresso-based drinks, but now the situation is reversed, with a seemingly-endless array of coffee options across the city. However, few of these were in the downtown area. The recent opening of Crazy Gander Coffee Company on Monroe Avenue fills that much-needed gap. At a time when a well-known national coffee chain has talked about being a “third place” between home and work, the Crazy Gander delivers on that concept, providing a bright, cheerful, welcoming and serene island from the noise and bustle of downtown Memphis. Bold gold and turquoise chairs contrast with the black-and-white maps of downtown Memphis on the walls, and the atmosphere is perfect for laptop work or just a lunch-break decompression from the stress of the workday. And the coffee drinks are absolutely delicious as well. Of course like everything downtown, there is a bit of a parking challenge, and the Crazy Gander closes fairly early, at 4 PM each day. But it is worth the effort to visit, and is within walking distance of most downtown hotels.
Trouble with my car caused me to miss a day of work, but fortunately, my mechanic had my car back working by 11 AM. I decided to drive up to Jackson, Tennessee to have lunch with a friend, and we went to Perkins. But afterward, I decided to stop by a coffee bar and pick up some whole beans to take home to Memphis. Although I had seen J-Town Coffee listed in Yelp, I had never been able to try it out, because it closes at 4 PM, and I am usually in Jackson much later. Today, however, was a rare exception, so I headed over to J-Town, which is actually a coffee truck in a parking lot along Vann Drive.
While some might be skeptical about coffee from a truck, I immediately noticed that they had bags of coffee from Guatemala, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and that the date of roasting was noted on the bag, all signs of people who take coffee seriously. I ordered a latte for myself and my friend, and bought two bags of beans. Unfortunately, I noticed that the sky was darkening as we sat in my car pulled up to the coffee truck. As we got on I-40 heading back west, the skies opened up with heavy downpours. Since my drivers’ side window would not close, I got fairly wet, at least as far as Brownsville.
Early on Saturday morning, June 19th, I headed to a restaurant called the Merry-Go-Round on North Fares Avenue in Evansville, Indiana. Fares was once Highway 41, and the restaurant was located in an area of several sketchy motels, but the number of cars around the building convinced me I was in the right place. Inside, the restaurant was a combination of antiques and Trump posters. I was not happy about that, but Evansville has few breakfast choices, and I saw that the customer base seemed relatively diverse, so I stayed.
The Merry-Go-Round goes back to at least World War II, and has a definite old-school vibe; the places sells burgers and ice cream, even if breakfast is the main reason people go. And a good breakfast it proved to be. Although the place was fairly crowded, the restaurant is large, and I had no problem getting a table.
My next step was to find a local coffee bar for a latte, so I drove over to the Honey Moon Coffee Company on Weibach Avenue, but as I arrived there, Duwayne Burnside called me and said that he wanted us all to soundcheck at 10 AM at the W. C. Handy Festival stage in Henderson, Kentucky, rather than at 11 AM as I had supposed. So I had to get my latte to go, and head south on Highway 41 across the bridge into Henderson. Fortunately, there was a blocked-off lot where we were allowed to park as performers.
The weather was extremely hot, and there were not a lot of people in the seats when I arrived, but then we were the first act to perform, and we did not go on stage until noon. To my amazement, they had a beautiful Nord keyboard on stage, and we had access to the food tent until it was time to soundcheck with Pinkie Pulliam, Charles Gage and Duwayne.
By the time we performed, there was a much larger crowd in the seats than when we arrived. The view from the stage over the crowd and out to the Ohio River was quite beautiful, and the show was fun to play. There were even some boats out on the river enjoying the show from the water. One of the things I was pleased with is that Duwayne Burnside gave the crowd authentic blues when so many of the other acts seemed more rock oriented.
Afterwards, I got my car and headed back across to Evansville. I grabbed a late afternoon lunch at Blu Burger Bar, the Evansville branch of an Indianapolis chain, located in the city’s old bus depot. The building has been lovingly and beautifully restored, and the food was outstanding.
My last stop before checking out of my hotel and leaving Evansville was at a store I had never seen before called Meijer. I vaguely remembered the name from trips to Cincinnati, but I had never been inside one. To my amazement, Meijer seems like a cross between Wal-Mart, target, Costco and Sam’s Club, all in one. The building was bright, mostly glass and chrome, and impeccably clean. I had intended to take some Double Cola back to Memphis, but Meijer didn’t have any in stock; however, they did have some Tchibo Coffee imported from Germany, and I bought that to take home.
Unfortunately, my car which had performed so well going up to Henderson and Evansville did not do as well going back. It started hesitating at times, and by the time I reached Dyersburg, the check engine light had come on. I stopped at a O’Reilly Auto Parts there, and learned that the fuel rail pressure sensor was going out. Despite difficulty, I managed to make it to the house.
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.
I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner in Brownsville, so I headed out Highway 70 from Bartlett, and stopped in Mason, Tennessee to see if there were any announcements about upcoming events now that the pandemic seemed to be waning. To my surprise, there were several events coming up, including a retirement party for the Zodiac A’s, the local softball team in Mason for 35 years, and a community gospel concert at Fredonia Missionary Baptist Church. The biggest event coming was the July 4 Mason Community Family Reunion sponsored by the southern soul artist Terry Wright, for which I had already pre-purchased tickets.
However, in Brownsville, I could not reach my friend on the phone, and after driving around the town for a half hour or so, I headed on to Jackson, Tennessee. First, I drove by Reggie’s Bar-B-Que to pick up some bags of their pork rinds, which are unique and unlike any other brand, and then I headed from the east end of town toward downtown. Along Whitehall Street, I came to an old and seemingly-abandoned motel which seemed frozen in time. I decided to stop and photograph it, and to my surprise, an elderly couple came out of one of the rooms, so apparently the motel wasn’t quite as abandoned as it seemed.
Downtown, I pulled up to the Blacksmith Bar and Grill, and, faced with the prospect of eating dinner by myself, I posted a message to any of my Jackson friends on Facebook to meet me up at the restaurant. To my surprise, one of my friends from Huntsville responded, Codie G, who was in town doing contract work for the U.S. Army. We had a decent time catching up with one another over dinner, and then, resisting the temptation to run by Green Frog Coffee, I hit the road back to Bartlett.
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.