More Blues and Roots Music at Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival

At one time, as far as music festivals went, Clarksdale, Mississippi had one, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August. Later, after former advertising executive Roger Stolle came to town, a second one, the venerable Juke Joint Festival took root, becoming the city’s largest festival, attracting people from all over the world. But now, Clarksdale’s burgeoning tourism business is driven by a succession of festivals, stretching nearly all year long. Music, film, art….all are celebrated in different events. The Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival is one of these newer events, held in May, with performances at Cat Head Delta Blues and at the New Roxy.

Like the better-known events, the Clarksdale Caravan is primarily about blues, although it is in a much more intimate setting, with only two stages, and therefore a lot more interaction between the artists and performers. On this year’s festival, there had been a considerable amount of rain up in Memphis, and I feared that could disrupt the event, as the Cat Head stage was outside, but in Clarksdale the sun was out, and shining.

My primary goal was to catch R. L. Boyce at the Cat Head stage, and I did. He was performing with Lightnin Malcolm and a violinist with whom I was not familiar. A small crowd had gathered under the tent in front of the store, and due to the threat of rain, I decided to do my photographic work with my iPhone instead of my Nikon. Indeed it did start raining briefly, and I eventually took refuge in the Meraki Coffee Roasters shop a block down the street.

In the afternoon, Lightnin Malcolm was scheduled to perform on the stage at New Roxy, a former theatre in the New World district of Clarksdale, but I arrived early, and nothing was happening yet, so I spent some time walking around the area shooting pictures of the buildings, many of which are sadly beginning to collapse. Local artists have attempted to brighten the ruins of what remains, with painted images and slogans, such as “I am of this city and this city is of me,” but the loss of such history is not easy to bear. The New Roxy is a better story, however, as it has survived, despite the loss of its roof, to become a popular music venue in Clarksdale.

Perhaps because of the rain threat, Malcolm’s performance took place in the smaller, lounge portion of the New Roxy, within the former box office of the theatre, rather than the larger outdoor stage. He performed primarily with his drummer, but also did a couple of tunes with R. L. Boyce, with whom he had played earlier at Cat Head. The crowd was fairly small but enthusiastic. It was ultimately a great day of music, and the rain threatened but never actually disrupted anything.

Hill Country Traditions at the Hulette Picnic in Senatobia

Although it was the weekend of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena had mentioned something about a large birthday picnic and party near Senatobia, Mississippi that was supposed to feature live blues and fife and drum music, so on Saturday evening, despite the heat and occasional storms, we headed down to a small village of trailer homes along the LRL Road south of Senatobia, where a birthday party was being held for a woman named Carolyn Hulette. A large flatbed trailer had been set up as a stage, and a hundred people or so were gathered at tables and chairs under the trees, enjoying barbecue and live music. Fife musician Willie Hurt was playing when we arrived, and the musicologist Carl Vermilyea was backing him up on the snare drum. Later, Willie called me over to meet Ms. Hulette, who explained to me that she used to “follow the drums” but that she was now “too young” for that. Many Hulette family members had come from Virginia and from the West Coast, and some were camping in tents on the hill south of the stage area. There was a DJ as well, lots of dancing, a birthday cake and lemonade, and then Ms. Hulette’s son Tracy and grandson Travis came on stage with a drummer to play some blues. Sherena explained to me that Travis had been playing with R. L. before he had moved to Nashville. He proved to be a talented, gifted Hill Country-style guitarist, and he played several standard blues tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out on the Line” and “Going Down South.” After they performed, the proceedings were turned back over to the DJ, and as it was after 11 PM, we headed back to Senatobia. 

Kingfish and Terry “Big T” Williams Rock The Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival

Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival / Google Photos

Founded in 1988, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival is the older of Clarksdale’s two main annual blues festivals, but in recent years it has seemed to struggle as the Juke Joint Festival in April has grown in popularity. Nevertheless, it still attracts many people to Clarksdale each August, and after an ill-fated expansion effort in 2012, the festival has finally returned to its roots as a regional blues festival in downtown Clarksdale. This year, I was thrilled to see that the fencing around the festival grounds in previous years had been done away with, allowing free access to and from the festival to the surrounding streets and venues of downtown Clarksdale, and attendees again had access to the front of the stage, unlike 2012 when the whole area had been reserved for VIP’s who had donated large sums of money to the festival. Unfortunately, we were late in getting to Clarksdale this year, but when we arrived at the main stage, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram was on stage, amazing the crowd with his guitar skills, backed by Chris Black on drums and Paul Rogers on bass. He was followed by Terry “Big T” Williams, a perennial favorite in Clarksdale, whose Family Band includes the prominent Delta saxophonist Alphonso Sanders. The crowd seemed somewhat smaller than in previous years, but that may have been due to the threat of rain, which persisted all day Saturday.Nevertheless, the rain stayed away while we were there, and with the barricades gone, festival-goers swarmed around the downtown Clarksdale, visiting shops and restaurants, and several venues sponsored their own performances to coincide with the festival weekend.

Leo “Bud” Welch Live at Red’s Lounge #SunflowerBlues2013

I went from having never heard of Leo “Bud” Welch a couple of weeks ago to suddenly hearing his name everywhere. He’s getting booked a lot more often suddenly, and he has an album in the works from Fat Possum Records/Big Legal Mess. Saturday night, the North Mississippi All Stars were on the main stage, and they’re great, but I’ve heard them many times, so I decided to check out Red’s Lounge to see who was playing, and it was none other than Leo “Bud” Welch. Red’s is a true juke joint with worlds of authentic atmosphere. The tiny open space in front of the “stage” was occupied by dancers, and Robert Belfour, another legendary Hill Country bluesman was in the audience listening.

Mel Waiters Live at #SunflowerBlues2013

San Antonio-based soul singer Mel Waiters is one of the most popular figures in Southern soul, best known for hit songs like “Hole In The Wall” and “Got My Whiskey.” Saturday night, Waiters was one of the headline acts for the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, and the crowd cheered as his band came out in their matching blue-and-white suits. Mel Waiters’ band was first-rate, and he put on a great show.

Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry and Special Guest Cash McCall #SunflowerBlues2013

Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry is from Tula in Lafayette County, and has recorded six albums, including his most recent, the 2012 album The Clarksdale Sessions. Saturday evening at the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, he was joined by legendary Chicago bluesman Cash McCall. Perry’s style seems to straddle the fence between the Southern Soul genre and a more traditional blues approach.

James “Super Chikan” Johnson Live at #SunflowerBlues2013

James “Super Chikan” Johnson remains one of the Delta’s best-beloved blues performers, playing his homemade instruments in a rock-influenced amplified style with his band the Fighting Cocks. In addition to his music, Super Chikan is an accomplished folk artist, and his pieces are highly sought after.

Heather Crosse, Heavy Suga and the Sweet Tones at #SunflowerBlues2013

Heather Crosse played bass for the legendary Super Chikan before forming her own band Heavy Suga and the Sweet Tones, who frequently appear in Clarksdale at Ground Zero. Crosse explained to the crowd at the Sunflower Blues Festival this year that she used to come to Clarksdale to the festival as a fan and that she never imagined that she would one day live in Clarksdale and get to perform on the stage during the festival. She is a talented blues singer and songwriter, who shows the influence of a number of femal blues greats, especially Koko Taylor.