During the warm months, Blues on the Porch in Holly Springs, Mississippi brings the area’s best blues performers to the front porches and yards of some of the town’s most historic and beautiful old homes, some of which predate the Civil War. The atmosphere is family-friendly and congenial, and there is usually plenty of good food.
The August Blues on the Porch occurred at the end of a beautiful Saturday which was not all that hot despite the time of year, at a mansion a few blocks south of the Court Square. The opening act was a band which included the house’s owner, but the main act was Lady Trucker, a blues and Southern Soul singer who is the wife of the great Hill Country drummer Artemas LeSeur. Trucker’s band for the evening included bluesman Lightning Malcolm, and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena came to jook and play the tambourine. With the weather so pleasant, a large crowd turned out, well over a hundred people, who enjoyed a night of food, fun and great music.
Afterwards, a friend and I headed to Marshall’s Steakhouse, arguably the county’s best restaurant for a late dinner, and they also were featuring a live band in front of their building. Our steaks were delicious, and it all made a perfect ending to an awesome day.
The Hill Country blues scene has always been a music of juke joints. Although the music is occasionally heard at large festivals and big city clubs, its home is the rural Northeast Mississippi hole-in-the-walls and picnics. For many years, the nerve center of the music (in the related form of Cotton Patch Soul Blues, as the Kimbrough family called it) was the rural juke on Highway 4 in Chulahoma which the late Junior Kimbrough owned. After it burned, there have been a succession of attempts to replace it in the Marshall County area, from a Burnside Blues Cafe out on Highway 310 in 2011 to David Kimbrough’s Junior’s Juke Joint No. 2 in 2015 in Holly Springs on Highway 7.
In early 2022, R. L. Burnside’s son Duwayne acquired the building in which David ran his juke joint and began converting it into the Burnside Bar and Grill. After a soft opening in April, the place has become a gathering point for barbecue and great live blues on an almost weekly basis. Not only has Duwayne Burnside performed there himself with his band, but also such great musicians as Garry Burnside, Kinney Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, Memphis Gold and Robert Kimbrough have graced its stage. Like most jukes, the ambiance is generally informal. People walk in and out. Sometimes there is an admission charge, often there is not. Sometimes there is free food, sometimes food is available for a price per plate. There is no DJ as such, just a cell phone hooked to speakers playing good blues. But then, one doesn’t expect a juke joint to be formal. Burnside Bar and Grill is a must-experience destination in Holly Springs, especially for all fans of the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul blues styles.
After an interruption caused by COVID-19, the annual Hill Country Picnic returned to Betty Davis’ Ponderosa near Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County, with two days of great Hill Country music and artists. The Hill Country Blues style (or Cotton Patch Soul Blues, as the Kimbrough family calls their style of blues) is a unique form of music that originates in the Hill Country of Northeast Mississippi, and is especially prevalent in Marshall County, where well-known blues musicians like R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough lived. The county is still home to prominent musicians, including Duwayne Burnside and Robert Kimbrough, as well as Joe Ayers, who was an original member of Junior Kimbrough’s Soul Blues Boys band.
Unlike many other summer blues events, the Hill Country Picnic is generally restricted to artists who are from the Hill Country region, or who were mentored by the original Hill Country/Cotton Patch Soul Blues performers. This guarantees plenty of opportunities to see the African-American originators of the tradition, which sadly is increasingly not the case at other high-profile blues festivals.
On the hot July Saturday of this year’s festival, fans got an opportunity to hear R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside, Kent Burnside and Kenny Brown, who started the festival in Potts Camp some 15 or so years ago.
Although the crowds have been smaller since the pandemic, it is good to see things beginning to return to normal, and one hopes that attendance will bounce back toward pre-pandemic numbers with each coming year.
Saturday April 23 was the main day of Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, a bright and sunny day, but extremely windy. In fact, the wind was so severe that it blew down a number of the vendor tents along downtown streets. When I arrived at the Wade Walton Stage, one of the free stages throughout the daytime, Memphisippi Sounds was on stage, the duo of Cameron Kimbrough and Damian Pearson. While there are not a lot of young Mississippi Hill Country artists, this group is one of the best emerging artists from the region. They were followed by Garry Burnside and his band, and then Duwayne Burnside and his band, and finally Kenny Brown, who was mentored by Mississippi Joe Callicott and the great R. L. Burnside. Around the same time, Como bluesman R. L. Boyce and Lightning Malcolm were on the Sunflower River stage next to Quapaw Canoe Company.
2022 brought some new openings to Clarksdale as well as some sad closings. The Riverside Hotel, famous as the the former hospital where blues great Bessie Smith died, has remained closed since it was damaged in a storm, and a fundraising effort is underway to keep it from closing permanently. Yazoo Pass, although open to a limited extent during weekdays, has closed at night, and was open only briefly on the festival day. But Sean “Bad” Apple’s new blues club in the former Club 2000 building, as well as the opening of the new Buster’s Blues Club next door show that the renaissance in Clarksdale still remains strong coming out of the pandemic.
After a dinner at the Hooker Grocery, I made my way over to Pete’s Grill on Sunflower Avenue for Duwayne Burnside’s night show. While the daytime stages are free to the public, the night shows inside the various juke joints require wristbands or paid admissions, but the shows are generally well-attended, and Duwayne’s was no exception.
As events go, the annual Juke Joint Fest has played perhaps the biggest role in making Clarksdale, Mississippi a tourist destination on the world stage, and over the years it has grown into a bigger and bigger event. Although the official festival generally takes place on a Saturday, it has come to encompass four days of live music and events, some of them official and others not. This year, the Juke Joint Fest kicked off on Friday with a parade in downtown Clarksdale, the first such parade during the festival I can recall. It was breaking up on John Lee Hooker Street just as I walked up to the Hooker Grocery, perhaps Clarksdale’s most upscale restaurant.
After dinner, I walked down to Meraki Coffee Roasters, the youth-run coffee bar which was also quite crowded. Although it usually closes early in the afternoon, Meraki extends their hours during the festival, and it is something of a hub for visitors and performers alike. The streets were full of local residents and tourists in a festive mood, and music was everywhere. Making my way back to Yazoo Avenue, I met up with Duwayne Burnside whose band was setting up to play at Bluesberry Cafe, which was packed to overflowing. After his performance, I was tempted to swing by Red’s Lounge, but as it was late and the next day was an even bigger day for the festival, I headed back to Memphis.
The South Central Chapter meeting of the American Musicological Society was held in March at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and the trip gave me an opportunity to spend a Friday evening in Nashville, as I was not scheduled to give a presentation until Saturday.
So after checking into my hotel in Murfreesboro, I drove up to Nashville to go to my favorite pizza place, Emmy Squared, which specializes in Detroit style pizza. But as I arrived in The Gulch district where it is located, it began raining, and I had to walk through showers to make my way to the restaurant. The place was crowded, and I had to wait nearly an hour, but the pizza was just as good as I had remembered from my first visit several years ago.
After dinner, I decided to go to Rudy’s Jazz Room, which is the new jazz club in the Nashville area, after the venerable F. Scott’s closed some years ago. I had not heard of the jazz pianist who was playing, but he was quite good, and I enjoyed the entire experience. Rudy’s Jazz Room is in fact a room for listening, and despite the place being crowded indeed, I was able to be seated comfortably and to hear the music. Low lighting and the ambiance of a living room characterized the club.
Afterwards, I wanted to grab a dessert, and fortunately Nashville has a branch of Atlanta’s great Cafe Intermezzo. Although it closes earlier than the original location in Atlanta, I was able to get in and to enjoy a piece of chocolate peanut butter cheesecake and a Viennese coffee. It was a great way to end a fun night in Nashville before driving back to Murfreesboro and to bed.
“Mardi Gras” to most Americans conjures up images of crowds on Bourbon Street and girls pulling up their dresses in the hopes that someone will throw them beads. But the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans takes place far away from the French Quarter, where actually no parades take place on Lundi Gras or Mardi Gras. Most of the bigger parades occur uptown along St. Charles Avenue, but even that is not to be compared with the holiday that occurs in the city’s Black neighborhoods along the backstreets. There the day begins with groups of youths in macabre costume known as the Skeleton Men, and groups of women called the Baby Dolls, who are followed by the Black Indian tribes, whose elaborate suits are true works of art. Accompanied by drummers, these tribes march through the neighborhoods, challenging other tribes to a competition ritual involving dance and bravado.
Although the tribes are usually accompanied only by drums and tambourines, this year the Black Mohawks had hired the To Be Continued Brass Band to accompany them on the holiday, and they met at Verret’s Lounge on Washington Avenue to begin the day. As is usually true on Mardi Gras day, the weather was warm and pleasant, with a blue sky and plenty of sun, and quite a few of the different tribes and their drummers were out in the Third Ward where much Black Indian activity takes place.
Later the TBC Band made their way to a private house party uptown, where they had been hired to play in the backyard, which featured an outdoor bar and deck. When that was over, my friend Darren Towns and his family and I headed to the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company in Terrytown, one of the few restaurants to actually be open on Mardi Gras Day. The fried seafood turned out to be really good, and I ended the holiday as I usually do each year, pleasantly tired from a day of parading and fun.
Being able to actually enjoy a relatively-ordinary Mardi Gras after the disruption caused by the pandemic was a blessing this year, and the live performance of the TBC Brass Band at Kernit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge in the Treme neighborhood was a great way to kick off this year’s celebration. As always, the patio was crowded with party-goers enjoying themselves between the banana trees and the outdoor bar and stage. The weather was warm and pleasant and the space in front of the stage was full of buck-jumpers. There’s really no better place to get into the mood of Mardi Gras.
On my previous birthday weekends in New Orleans, the TBC Brass Band was usually playing the Dumaine Street Gang second-line, but that didn’t happen this year, and instead Sunday was a day of gigs. It started with an outdoor wedding in front of a Ninth Ward church where the couple was paraded across the street to the house they were going to live in. That was followed by some sort of party at a reception hall in Metairie, and then two TBC gigs, the earlier of which was at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge in Treme.
Kermit’s is always a fun place to catch TBC, because they play on the outdoor patio, which has a real Caribbean vibe to it, complete with banana trees. This year a fire pit had been added, which provided extra warmth, as the winter evenings can get somewhat chilly even in New Orleans. Kermit had a funk band playing inside this year when we arrived, but they ended their set soon afterwards and everyone moved out to the patio. Although the To Be Continued Brass Band plays in a lot of places in the city, at Kermit’s there is always a great interaction between the band and their fans, and plenty of footwork in front of the stage.
The later set was down the street at Derrick Tapp’s Treme Hideaway, which I had usually viewed as a rap and R & B club. It has a sort of patio or courtyard as well, but at the Hideaway, bands play indoors. By the time TBC started playing their late set there, I was thoroughly exhausted and fairly hungry. And in post-COVID New Orleans, it doesn’t do to be hungry late at night, as there is nothing open. Everything closes early. I was finally able to pick up some breakfast at Coffee And in Marrero, one of the few places that remains open 24 hours a day.
After breakfast, my friend Darren from the TBC Brass Band and I headed into the Central Business District of New Orleans. I had always wanted to go to the rooftop bar on the Troubadour Hotel called the Monkey Board, but unfortunately, we learned that they didn’t open until 4. I had thought that the views of the city from there would be worth photographing, but since the band had a full day of shows, we would not be able to go back later in the day.
In fact, on a typical Saturday, TBC can have upwards of ten gigs or more. These are typically short, no more than 15 to 20 minutes; people hire them for funerals, wedding receptions, birthday parties and sometimes holiday parties, and they may have to traverse the whole New Orleans area from one end to the other. As it was my birthday weekend, I enjoyed nothing more than traveling around the city with my favorite band.
However, the day started off sadly, as the band had been engaged to play at a Catholic school out in the Holly Grove area in memory of a little girl who had drowned in a mop bucket at a daycare when left unattended. The case had been publicized locally, and a fairly large crowd was present to remember her. How the relatives can dance and buckjump at such a tragic time is something I have never fully understood about New Orleans, but I suppose that people can recall the good times and celebrate the lives of those who passed.
Other gigs were scattered around the city; one was in a ballroom at the Jung Hotel where we were kept waiting for a significant period of time. But perhaps the best one was for a birthday party at a neighborhood spot called the Sportsman Bar and Lounge on Odeon Avenue on the Algiers side. There TBC assembled on the corner of Odeon and General Meyer Avenue and then paraded down Odeon to the bar, where a large crowd of people had gathered to honor someone’s birthday. As is typical at such events, the band paraded through a side door into the bar, played for about 15 minutes and then went back outside. But the whole neighborhood seemed to be out as if there had been a second-line. The weather was warm and people were in a festive mood.
From there Darren and I headed to Lakeview to my favorite restaurant The Steak Knife for my birthday dinner. As always the food and atmosphere were great, and it did not take us long to get our food and eat, which was important, because TBC had yet another gig.
That final gig of the night was not far from Canal and Broad, and was yet another party, in a fairly small room that was packed to the walls. When it was over, I would have liked to grab some beignets and coffee or a dessert somewhere, but the pandemic was still having an effect on New Orleans. The Cafe du Monde had closed at 8 PM, and Morning Call at midnight, and Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza, which once stayed open until 4 AM was now closing at 10 PM. It was all disappointing and demoralizing, but still, the Saturday of my birthday weekend had been fun.