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The Blues is Front and Center on Clarksdale’s Biggest Day

Most people’s friends throw them a party on their birthday, but Roger Stolle, the owner of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art throws the whole world a party on his birthday, and what a party it is! Juke Joint Festival is Clarksdale’s biggest annual event, and one that draws thousands of people to the Mississippi Delta for great blues, good food, arts and crafts. The festival and auxiliary events stretch out over four days from Thursday to Sunday, and feature blues artists from the Delta, the Hill Country, the Bentonia area and all over the world. On Saturday, the music stretches out across seven stages which are free to the public until the evening, when paid wristbands are necessary to enter all the juke joints where music continues.

Early on Saturday, I encountered female blues artist Australia “Honeybee” Neal on the Cat Head stage, and after her performance, Lady Trucker was on the stage in front of Stone Pony Pizza just a few doors down. I had intended to catch Willie Farmer at the Cat Head stage, but he was late in showing up, so I walked around to the Travelers Hotel stage on Third Street where Hill Country bluesman Little Joe Ayers was performing with his son Trenton Ayers and drummer Artemas Lesueur. Ayers, who played with Junior Kimbrough, offered the most authentic Hill Country style blues I heard the entire day. Just around the corner on Issaquena Avenue from the Travelers Hotel was the Wade Walton stage, where Garry Burnside was performing with his band. Duwayne Burnside asked me to play keyboards for his set after his brother Garry, and on the last song, Junior Kimbrough’s son Kinney Kimbrough sat in on the drums.

Back at the Travelers Hotel stage, Otis “TCB” Taylor was on stage with his band. He calls himself the “Soul Blues Man” and straddles the line somewhat between the two genres, but he has a tight band, and was performing mostly blues when I saw him, especially a rousing medley of “Smokestack Lightning” and “Spoonful.”

After a brief refreshment stop at Meraki Coffee Roasters, I walked back up to Cat Head’s stage to catch Jimmy “Duck” Holmes from Bentonia, Mississippi. Holmes, the owner of the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, is the last living exponent of the Bentonia style of blues guitar, and his performance Saturday was as good as I have ever heard from him.

Down by the Sunflower River, Lightning Malcolm was on the stage near Quapaw Canoe Company, playing the set that in previous years belonged to the late R. L. Boyce. It was a sad reminder that we had lost him since the last Juke Joint Festival. But altogether, it was an absolutely gorgeous day, with no wind, no rain, no cold and not a cloud in the sky.

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