Every April, the Juke Joint Festival takes over Clarksdale, Mississippi, bringing blues fans from all over the world to the small city in the Mississippi Delta, but this year, on the Wednesday before the festival, Memphians were given a taste of the festival in advance, with performances of Garry Burnside, Carlos Elliot Jr. and Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce at the new Tin Roof Memphis in the former Hard Rock Cafe spot on Beale at Rufus Thomas Street. The Tin Roof has pursued an adventurous and better-than-average booking policy since its opening, with heavy blues leanings, and the decision to book two Hill Country blues legends with arguably the best South American bluesman was an inspired one. One of the high points for me was hearing Carlos Elliot’s southern-soulish “Got This Feelin” for the first time. Although the venue’s ambiance was more that of a nightclub than a juke joint, the dance floor was occasionally crowded with jukers, and a good time was had by all.
Mention crawfish and most people will immediately think of Louisiana, but the “mudbug” is a popular sign of spring throughout the South, and Memphis is no exception. The Bluff City actually has two festivals in April dedicated to crawfish, and the first of these is the Overton Square Crawfish Festival, held in the city’s restored Overton Square entertainment district, mainly in the parking lot of the Bayou Bar and Grill. This year, in addition to plenty of beer and crawfish, the Overton Square festival featured a day of North Mississippi’s best blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce from Como, Robert Kimbrough and Garry Burnside from Holly Springs, and Lightning Malcolm. By the end of the afternoon, the crowd filled Madison Avenue for three straight blocks. It proved to be great food and great fun.
Since blues is one of the unique genres of music invented in America, I can think of few better ways to spend the Fourth of July than at a blues picnic. While there weren’t many public blues events in the Mid-South advertised on the Fourth, I had been invited to a private picnic in Sardis, Mississippi where R. L. Boyce from Como and Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs were performing with a band fronted by a harmonica player named Al Reed. The band was playing on a truck trailer that had been pulled into a residential yard on the west side of Sardis, and there was quite a crowd there, even a young blues fan who had come down from New York. The music was great, and kids from the neighborhood nearby were shooting off fireworks, but rains kept coming, and because the instruments were electric, the show kept getting interrupted. My friend and I decided to go to Batesville to dinner, and heading back through Como heard what sounded like a fife and drum band coming from a house near the intersection of Highway 310 and Highway 51. We pulled back around and in front of the house, but the sounds were apparently from a recording rather than an actual fife and drum band. Later, R. L. Boyce sat in with the Greg Ayers Band (Greg is apparently no kin to Little Joe) at a private event facility in Senatobia. This was more of a southern soul gig, but R. L. played a couple of Hill Country tunes, and the crowd was enthusiastic indeed.
Although the Friday night shows had been harassed by storms, no such problem occurred on the Saturday of the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. In fact the day was a bright sunny blue one, with fairly cool temperatures compared to what we had been having, and it was the perfect setting for a full day of Hill Country blues. The gates had opened with R. L. Boyce at 10:30 in the morning, but by the time I arrived, Joseph Burnside was on stage, with Duwayne and Garry Burnside backing him up. He was followed by Bill Abel, then Cary Hudson of the band Blue Mountain, and finally Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from the Gravel Springs community near Senatobia, one of the last Black fife and drum bands in America. Garry Burnside and his band went up on stage after that, and then I left to go to dinner at Lamar Lounge in Oxford. In addition to the live performances, there were lots of arts, crafts and clothing for sale at various tents up on the hill, and a raffle, which was being held to raise money for a gravestone for the late bluesman Robert Belfour. And the whole day’s proceedings were broadcast live by New Orleans’ superb radio station WWOZ.
Keep up with R. L. Boyce:
Keep up with Bill Abel:
Como, Mississippi is a town of significant importance when it comes to the Hill Country style of blues, and it is a town that has had something of a nightlife renaissance in recent years, with several regionally-acclaimed restaurants, so it is somewhat surprising that live blues is considerably rare in Como. After all, this was the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the town where the Rev. Robert Wilkins and the Rev. John Wilkins preached and played their unique style of blues-inflected gospel. But aside from the occasional recording sessions at Delta Recording Service, I had never seen any live blues in Como, so when Sherena Boyce invited me to her birthday party and said that her dad, legendary bluesman R. L. Boyce would be playing, I made plans to go.
Her party was held at a little building called the Back Street Ballroom on the street immediately behind Main Street. Although the building was more of an event rental venue, it had the look of a typical Mississippi juke, particularly inside. Friends and family gathered, and a few fans of R. L. Boyce as well, and the event soon got underway, with R. L. Boyce playing the guitar, backed by a band from Potts Camp in Marshall County whose name was never mentioned. It was a versatile band, however, because its keyboard player at one point switched to drums, and its drummer also played guitar and sang. After a few songs, a female singer named Joyce Jones came up and performed several more tunes, and the floor filled up with dancers, many exhibiting the same kind of moves that I had seen the weekend before at the second-line in New Orleans. Also reminiscent of the second-line culture was the fact that at least one party-goer had brought a tambourine with them that they beat and shook in time to the band on stage. After two sets of live music from the band, the DJ picked back up with southern soul and blues music, and the party kept going strong until 2 AM.
The conventional wisdom is that there is really only one Black fife-and-drum band left in America, that of Sharde Thomas in Panola County, so it was thrilling to see a second one at this year’s Juke Joint Festival, even if it shared a member with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. R. L. Boyce, a blues musician from Como has long held yard parties at his house, and some of these have featured fife-and-drum music. At the Cat Head stage at this year’s festival, Boyce brought out a fife-and-drum band which featured Otha Turner’s nephew, Andre Otha Evans on the flute, rather than the bass drum he customarily plays with the Rising Star. Perhaps it’s a sign that the tradition has some life remaining in it, at least in Mississippi.