This was the first year at Juke Joint Fest with the new Traveler’s Hotel in downtown Clarksdale, and for the first time, there was a new performance tent across the street from the hotel in a parking lot. I had not paid a lot of attention to the location earlier, but when I walked back that way later in the morning, the Southern Soul Band was playing there. I recalled them from Como Day in 2018, when they had been a crowd-pleaser. There was a classic car show in the intersection nearby, and the crowd seemed pleased with what they were hearing. I enjoyed them as well as I headed around the corner and into the Blue Cotton Bake Shop for some coffee and baked goods.
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.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I headed down to the South Main Arts District in Memphis in search of brunch. The old Central Station has been turned into a hotel, and I wanted to see if there was a restaurant in it. Ultimately, I found that the restaurants in the Central Station Hotel were not open yet, and would not open until later in November, but I wasn’t disappointed, as I got a chance to see the beautiful Eight and Sand Bar, whose theme is Memphis music. Record albums span the shelves from ceiling to floor, along with a number of books about Memphis music and blues, and a permanent DJ booth. The music theme continues throughout the hotel, including beautiful speakers worked into the walls of the lobby.
I had thought that Vice & Virtue Coffee had a coffee bar in the Central Station Hotel, but I was wrong—it turned out to be in a completely different hotel up the street called the Arrive, which I really wasn’t aware of at all. This hotel also has a music theme, with an old gramophone in the lobby, and a cool bakery called Hustle and Dough! A salted caramel cookie from the bakery went perfectly with a cup of Vice and Virtue coffee, and I enjoyed the lively, vibrant atmosphere of the hotel lobby and bar.
Unfortunately, a cookie and coffee is not brunch, and the old brunch spot at Earnestine and Hazel’s called The Five Spot is apparently closed for good, so I ended up at The Arcade for breakfast, a reasonable stand-by in the area. While it will take more than cool hotels, bars, coffee and bakeries to rejuvenate Memphis, I like the trends I am seeing.
Central Station Hotel and Eight & Sand Bar
545 S Main St
Memphis, TN 38103
ARRIVE Hotel, Hustle and Dough and Vice & Virtue Coffee
477 S Main St
Memphis, TN 38103
Vice & Virtue Coffee (901) 402-8002
While driving from our hotel room in Yazoo City toward the Bentonia Blues Festival, we came into downtown Yazoo City on Main Street, looking for ice cream, as it was such a hot day. We didn’t find any frozen desserts, but we did find that the historic downtown buildings had been painted in an array of tropical colors. The scene almost resembled a Caribbean shopping district, such as Aruba or Curacao. Like other Mississippi cities, Yazoo City has had a hard time redeveloping its downtown, but there is starting to be some progress. We saw an antique mall, a restaurant and a small hotel. For my part, I was surprised by the massive size of Yazoo City’s downtown area. Although the city is only 40 miles from Jackson, it must have been a place of major importance at one time. We ended up having to backtrack to Sonic out on the bypass for ice cream, but I was glad we had stumbled onto the beautiful buildings downtown.
Although we tended to stay close to the Cat Head Stage during Juke Join Festival, so as to not miss the stellar line-up of blues artists there, we did venture out to some of the other stages, as well as the local and regional artists and other vendors who set up under the tents along every major street in downtown Clarksdale. Many of these vendors sold fine works of art, the majority of them with a blues theme, as well as beautifully hand-crafted cigar box guitars. A few of the tents were promotional efforts by local or regional businesses, one of them a hotel corporation that is openly a four-star luxury hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi, and which plans to take over two budget motels in Clarksdale and upgrade them to luxury status. Another new hotel, the Travelers’ Hotel, is under construction in an old historic building in downtown Clarksdale. Some of the artists appearing on other stages included Joyce Jones from Potts Camp, with her son Cameron Kimbrough on drums and Little Willie Farmer from Duck Hill, Mississippi. Those looking to recharge their phones or get some shelter from the occasional rain ended up at Meraki Coffee Roasters on Sunflower Avenue, where they could enjoy light baked goods and fine pour-over or French press coffees, at least until the rain and wind knocked out power to most of the downtown area.
A lady friend and I had decided to drive to Little Rock to see the young blues sensation Akeem Kemp, and we needed to eat dinner before the show. So I turned to my Yelp app on my phone, and it showed a place called Agasi 7 Bar & Kitchen, which had opened only a few weeks before, on the rooftop of the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Little Rock. Reviews were good, and rooftop options are never a bad idea for a romantic night out, weather permitting, so we headed there when we arrived in Little Rock and were not disappointed.
It does need to be stated that Agasi 7 occupies a fairly small space on the roof of the hotel, and thus capacity is closely watched. If the venue is considered full, the staff on the ground floor of the hotel will not allow you to ride the elevator up to the bar. On this particular Saturday night, the venue was very crowded, but we managed to be allowed to go up immediately, and were shown to a table.
In warm weather (which this definitely was not), there is a large outdoor area of chairs and fire pits for patrons to enjoy, but a small indoor area and bar means that Agasi can accomodate patrons year-round, rain or shine. As for the menu, it is somewhat limited, which really makes sense as the place is first and foremost a bar. But there are a number of small individually-sized pizzas, a burger, other sandwiches, steak, salmon and small plate options, which can all be enjoyed while overlooking the city of Little Rock, which is arguably one of America’s most attractive downtowns. The view from almost any side of the room is beautiful, and my hamburger, which came with bacon, cheese and mushrooms was amazing, with an unexpected smokey flavor that immediately caught my attention. Prices are not cheap, but then you really wouldn’t expect a rooftop bar to have cheap prices anyway, and the view, quality of food, and enthusiastic service make Agasi 7 worth the time and money.
Agasi 7 Rooftop Bar and Grill
Hilton Garden Inn
322 Rock St.
Little Rock, AR 72202
Open daily at 4 PM
It’s not at all unusual for Sean “Bad” Apple and R. L. Boyce to perform in Clarksdale, but on the last Saturday in February, they performed in a rather unusual place. The Bin is a former grain elevator used as a music venue on the grounds of the Shacksdale Motel ,a motel of cottages across the road from the Shack Up Inn at Hopson, just outside of Clarksdale. The motel and inn are popular with out-of-town visitors on blues pilgrimages, so live blues performances on the grounds make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, it was quite cold on this particular afternoon, and the venue was somewhat open to the outside. But a good crowd was present, including singer Libby Rae Watson, who was scheduled to perform after Apple and Boyce, who were aided by Stud Ford on drums and Sherena Boyce on tambourine. The afternoon consisted primarily of Boyce’s unique compositions, as well as some Hill Country standards like “Poor Black Mattie” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The fun continued until 5 PM, and then Boyce had to leave for another show elsewhere in the Delta.
Somehow I had never heard of the Ace Hotels chain, much less that one was being opened in New Orleans, so when my friend said that her dad R. L. Boyce was being booked to play at the Three Keys Lounge at the Ace Hotel New Orleans, I was somewhat confused, having never heard of either spot, and as one who prides myself on knowing New Orleans like a native, that had me concerned. As it turned out, I could be excused, for the hotel had only been open for a month, but as part of her dad’s performance, we had a room there, which was absolutely awesome, with an old-school vibe and modernistic art at every turn. But perhaps the crown jewel of the place (at least in my mind) was Alto, a sleek, modernistic rooftop bar with a swimming pool. Although on the day we arrived, the pool and bar were restricted to hotel guests, that apparently is not always the case, and non-guests can occasionally pay a fee for pool access. The pool was big, fairly shallow, very cold, and full of people, but none of that was worrisome in any way, since the day was so hot. All the same, it should be noted that people tend to lounge in the pool rather than swim in it. Outside the water, guests can enjoy drinks and a limited bar menu. It was by far the most luxurious spot I’ve found in New Orleans, and a whole lot of fun.
Alto (atop the Ace Hotel New Orleans)
New Orleans, LA 70130
Open Daily 10 AM-9 PM
It was an absolutely gorgeous, warm afternoon, and a lady friend and I decided to head down to Oxford, Mississippi for dinner, a browse in my favorite bookstore and perhaps dessert. It’s not uncommon for us to go to Oxford, but on this evening, we discovered something new, a boutique hotel called the Graduate, which has opened on the site of the old Oxford Inn on North Lamar, a block or so from the square. As a hotel, the Graduate, with about 9 stories or so, looks like something straight out of Miami’s South Beach, but what attracted us was a rooftop bar and grill called The Coop. The Coop is an elegant space, with indoor and outdoor seating, but in warm weather, the outdoor deck is the better choice, with its panoramic view of Oxford. As my friend and I entered, a recording of Junior Kimbrough was playing overhead, a good omen indeed. We were seated on the outdoor deck at a table, while the sun slowly set in the west over the town, an experience that really isn’t even available in Memphis. My friend enjoyed an appetizer and a glass of wine. The big thing at The Coop is sliders, which come 2 to an order. There are 9 types of sliders, including the standard hamburger type. They’re not particularly expensive, either, and delicious. The Coop also has truffle fries, and they come in a cup with parmesan cheese. Also quite delicious. Service proved to be prompt and cheerful, and the food good, despite the somewhat limited menu. And it’s worth it for the unprecedented vistas. From up there, Oxford seems like some romantic resort town. And perhaps that’s the point.
Downstairs, the lobby of the hotel is also decorative and beautiful. The desk simulates bookshelves, with hundreds of bookspines, complete with authors and titles worked into the design. The lamps around the desk are globes of the world, complete with country details. Faulknerian art work hangs on the walls. But off the lobby is another restaurant choice, Cabin 82, which is primarily a coffee bar, despite offering a limited menu of breakfast and chicken biscuits. Their breve lattes are absolutely delicious, and although Oxford does have other coffee bars, it is conveniently located for those who have had dinner at The Coop.
The Saturday of A3C was a little different this year, and somewhat more difficult, in that Georgia Tech was having a football game at their stadium, which was just across I-75/85 from the conference hotel, so parking was extremely expensive if you could even find any. I finally found parking at Emory Hospital (and they hadn’t raised the rates for the game, I suppose out of concern for visitors and families), so I was able to make my way to the hotel for the day’s activities. But no sooner was I up in the 25th floor lounge than it started raining, and not just a little bit, but heavy downpours. We could see people leaving the stadium in droves from across the way, and I feared that the outdoor showcases would be cancelled as well, but after an hour or so, the rain ended, and I caught the shuttle out to the A3C Main Stage on Edgewood Avenue.