Ray Proetto covers Juke Joint Festival 2014

Unexpected Memories and Lowlights

Me and Leslie dancing to The Gift Shop Trio Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Me and Leslie dancing to The Gift Shop Trio Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Ray Proetto is an avid photographer who enjoys documenting blues musicians. Ray has been a featured writer for the DELTA BOHEMIAN®.

Visit his website BLUES POWER PHOTO and his shop on Etsy.

By GUEST BOHEMIAN RAY PROETTO

Clarksdale, Mississippi

The 2014 Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale MS had its share of amazing highlights…   Reverend Peyton and the Big Damn Band filled the New Roxy Theater to capacity Saturday night; meanwhile, over one hundred fans were turned away to comply with the fire code. Later Robert “Bilbo” Walker sat at piano on the same stage singing beautiful gospel songs to a grateful crowd. Super Chikan and his band, featuring the wild woman La La on piano, whipped the crowd into a frenzy at the Ground Zero Blues Club. Lightnin Malcomb put on Hill Country dance parties all weekend wherever he played. He also surprised his fans by getting married out at Hopson Plantation. Robert Belfour howled his blues to a street full of fans at the Cat Head stage. Lucious Spiller demonstrated his acoustic guitar wizardry at the Wade Walton stage. Blue Mother Tupelo put on another show of their country tinged blues and amazing harmonies at the Delta Amusement Cafe. Little Joe Ayers and LC Ulmer entertained the crowd at the Sun House Gallery.

LC Ulmer Makes a Point Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

LC Ulmer Makes a Point Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Of course there were too many highlights to mention with over 100 performances on Saturday alone. The festival schedule included at least twelve stages operating all day Saturday from 10:00am until late in the evening. This did not take into account the events on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. Despite so many extraordinary and enjoyable performances, the Juke Joint Festival always offers up unexpected experiences from the most unlikely of circumstances. It’s these unforeseen events, performances and “lowlights” which invariably stay embedded in my memory for years to come.

Home Away From Home

Driving from Florida to Clarksdale with Leslie, my better half, dance partner, and assistant, we rolled into Clarksdale at 3:00pm on Thursday April 10, 2014. Checking into the Riverside Hotel was reminiscent of arriving at a family reunion. The regulars were there: Neil and Ann Marie, Bob and Lynette, Jesse, and blues fans from all over the world. The proprietors, the Ratliff family, were sitting out front to greet us as if we were family that had been away for a very long time. Joyce, Mrs. Ratliff and her daughters Z (Zelena) and Sonia welcomed us with smiles and hugs. Joyce’s husband Frank Ratliff, aka “Rat,” was running the hotel his mother opened in the 1940s as a boarding house. Since his passing over a year ago, the torch has passed to yet another generation. Their daughter Z is now the manager with help from family and friends.

The sidewalk outside the Riverside Hotel doubles as a front porch where guests congregate day and night. If you had just come upon the scene, you would not have been capable of discerning who were the owners versus who were the guests? Every ethnic group I could think of was represented in those chairs and benches. There were blues fans and musicians from Japan, Sweden, Canada, all over the U.S.,and who knows where else? Sonia’s kids were playing by the bench seat; a young man named Jesse who also works at the Riverside was playing guitar. Joyce was sharing laughs with Bob and Lynette.

Me and Z outside the Riverside Hotel Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Me and Z outside the Riverside Hotel Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Front Porch Blues

We met a new guest on the “front porch” named Cheyenne Rae. She is a singer and aspiring film maker from Canada who is moving to Paris for film school.  Cheyenne is a beautiful woman with light coffee skin; dark, short, curly hair; plenty of curves; and a jazzy, soulful voice which grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Suddenly, she began singing along with Jesse on guitar to Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.”  Everyone immediately stopped whatever they were doing and listened with their mouths agape. Cheyenne moved and swayed as though her voice was escaping from her body rather than being pushed out of her own free will. Arms and hands had a life of their own. Her movements accentuated each verse or word with graceful rolling waves and exclamations. Everyone applauded spontaneously. We were all so appreciative of such a special performance right there on the “front porch.”  Later Cheyenne told me she, “learned how to sing that song from Howlin’ Wolf‘s version… when I’d listen to it as a kid cookin pancakes with my Mama.”

Cheyenne Rae and the Blues Wizard Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Cheyenne Rae and the Blues Wizard Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Meet the Blues Wizard

One half hour later we were walking down Delta Avenue in Clarksdale. We stumbled upon the self-proclaimed Blues Wizard.” His name is Keith Kifer and he hailed from San Diego California. The Wizard was set up in front of a closed store front with his guitar and amplifier. He played a homemade box guitar with a box that resembled a small suitcase. Yes the guitar opened and could hold lunch for ten! The Wizard lived up to his name and could play whatever you wanted. He resembled a bald biker with the mandatory grey goatee. Always smiling and infectiously positive, he travels the country for months at a time in his van. During our conversation, he proudly pronounced himself to be living a life of freedom.

Not long after we encountered the Blues Wizard, I turned to spot Cheyenne Rae speaking with him. Just as we came upon his spot again, Cheyenne suddenly began singing. It was a performance of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” The Blues Wizard nailed it on guitar and beamed as she danced and swayed. That voice escaping from some soulful place deep inside her.

The Blues Wizard Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

The Blues Wizard Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Deak Harp Takes Clarksdale by Storm

As we arrived at the Bank on Second Street, Deak Harp was setting up his equipment. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never seen him perform despite meeting him the year before in the Rock and Blues Museum. Checking out his distinctive one-man-band gear, I walked around the side of the low stage to get a look. He had a very old looking small amplifier. It was a vacuum tube amp with tweed cloth.  Turns out it’s a 1992 re-issue of the 1959 Bassman Amp. Deak used a small suitcase as a foot drum to keep the beat. His guitar was a beautiful,  mahogany Gibson Epiphone SG.  Later, he switched to a homemade box guitar. He also sported a custom made (by Deak himself), wireless, amplified, rack mounted, harmonica holder. This homemade device freed up his hands to play guitar. Deak proudly told me the rack’s wireless electric tone is a one-of-a-kind sound.

Deak Harp is a talented musician who admitted he hadn’t played guitar in years until recently but you wouldn’t know it based upon his show. Playing a set of songs from his recently released CD entitled Clarksdale Breakdown,” the show was impressive for its energy, power, and passion. The Bank Stage is in a very large room, and the stage itself could easily hold the entire Tedeschi-Trucks Band with room to spare. But this was of no concern to Deak. He easily filled the room with his formidable sound. Sitting in a chair at his microphone and foot drum, Deak immediately grabbed the audience’s attention. His guitar playing effectively captured that Mississippi blues groove with flawless rhythm. Growling his deep voice of loud passionate vocals, Deak put the emotion into his music that is so crucial for a Blues performer. Then he topped it all off with the power of his harmonica.  Playing mostly low and mid-range notes, Deak’s harp playing was definitely not pretty. Stevie Wonder he is not. His muscular, take no prisoners approach to the instrument blew the audience away!

Just as the set was really heating up, Deak began a song entitled, “Riding the Rails.” He surprised everyone as he walked off the front of the stage using his harp to emulate a train whistle. Falling to his knees, Deak really began to blow. Picking up power and volume as the train was approaching, Deak’s playing would have made you swear a train was barreling right through the room. Then he ran down the center aisle and out the front door. Standing outside the Bank on the sidewalk, he raised clenched fists high over his head in an act of triumph.  At that exact moment, Deak blew the full force of the train through his harp!

Later that day Deak performed in the street in front of his store, Deak’s Mississippi Saxaphones and Blues Emporium. Playing harmonica accompanied by a talented young drummer, they put on quite a show. I missed this brief concert but was fortunate to see a clip of it on Facebook.

Deak Harp @ The Bank in Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Deak Harp @ The Bank in Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Deak Harp - Ridin the Rails Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Deak Harp – Ridin the Rails Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Deak Harp Blowin Down the Aisle

Deak Harp Blowin Down the Aisle

LC Ulmer Preaching the Gospel of Healthy Living and Hard Work

Friday afternoon we stopped in Rosalind Wilcox’s Sun House Art Gallery. 

LC Ulmer was there just finishing up a meal at one of the tables. LC is a blues musician who at age 85 has lost none of the vitality and enthusiasm of a man 60 years younger. He’s a thin man with wiry muscles and a constant grin. His standard dress is a pair of overalls over a work shirt with a bandana around his neck and a conductor’s cap. He used a very large knife to open something he ate and still had the knife open in his hand when we sat down to speak with him. He was gracious as always, welcoming us to sit down and talk for a while. Of course LC began preaching. Not Bible preaching, but the gospel of clean living and hard work. He sprinkles his “sermons” with Bible references but it’s his personal creed that he preaches to whoever will listen.

Bemoaning the lack of work ethic in many of the younger folks he meets, LC let us know his Dad told him people are supposed to work and stay busy. LC told us about the two picnic tables he built that hold 22 people each and the 318 Ford engine he wants to put in his car–himself. He also teaches music regularly, has recorded two blues CDs during his 80s, and performs at blues festivals.

LC never lacks for a direct opinion about any subject. That is the charm of the man. He sees it as his personal mission to teach the wisdom he’s learned during his lifetime. He points his finger and smiles broadly when completing a thought. I can’t help smiling back and occasionally laughing throughout any conversation with LC. He is utterly captivating.

LC spoke about a number of topics during our sit down including the foolishness of arguing with a woman. He said, “Don’t ever argue or yell at a woman. Just turn around and walk away. It serves no purpose and only bad will come from it.” Then he said, “womens like that money. You got to provide for a woman to keep her happy.”  He went on to explain how he rented a furnished house for two hundred and fifty dollars a month to keep his first wife happy. I’m sure that was quite a sum over fifty years ago.

Later in the conversation, LC informed us the state of Mississippi had passed a new gun law easing the restrictions to carry a firearm. LC enthusiastically quoted the Bible conveying how one of the disciples carried a sword. He added, “so if it was good enough for one of Jesus’ disciples then it’s good enough for us too.”

It is irrelevant whether or not you agree with LC. After one of his pronouncements, there is simply no use debating the man. But dispute is not the goal. The aim is to show him respect, reverence, and experience the joy of speaking with an 85 year old man who is full of more vigor and energy than men half his age. That is why I never miss an opportunity to seek out a conversation with LC at every Juke Joint Festival.

Take Notice:  Little Bobby is on the Radar

Little Bobby hails from Minnesota.  He performed Saturday in front of the Rock and Blues Museum. Bobby is a pale looking fella with short dark hair and a stage presence similar to one of the “Walking Dead.” He rarely looks up from his guitar or mic stand as he lays down some of the best blues rock you’ve heard in years. Give this man the marketing skills of Joe Bonamassa and he would take off like a rocket.

I managed to grab a few good pictures of Little Bobby and sat down to listen. Over and over I looked up in amazement as he tore through the best set of electric guitar I heard all weekend. Bobby’s guitar screamed, moaned, and cried as his face contorted with intensity. He played tracks from his CD entitled, “Life of the Blues.” Scorching solos accompanied all of his songs as he played slow blues burners, blues rock, and swinging, Texas style rockers. “Ain’t from the Delta” had that Texas swing. If I had seen him perform on a big stage at a major festival, I would have been just as impressed. Shutting my eyes and drifting into a trance was easy as he played a long, creative solo to one of my favorites: “Like a Dirty Dog.”

Little Bobby was just another of the many surprises I encountered this weekend; he is now on my radar for an encore performance.

Little Bobby Bends the Strings Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Little Bobby Bends the Strings Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Little Bobby @ Rock N Blues Museum Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Little Bobby @ Rock N Blues Museum Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Pork Chop Willie Sets Red’s on Fire

My friend, St. Louis Frank, told me the Pork Chop Willie band puts on a great show. Frank said he was skeptical with the band being from New York City and playing Hill Country Blues. But after seeing them perform, Frank gave them his seal of approval. The band is fronted by Bill Hammer on guitar and vocals with Melissa Tong on fiddle. They were in town to kick off their national CD release of “Love is the Devil.” They didn’t have the rest of their New York band with them so they were backed by some local musicians.

We stopped in Red’s Blues Club just after 5pm Saturday Afternoon. The house was packed! The set had started already with Bill playing guitar and singing lead.  At first I didn’t get it. Bill’s appearance and vocal delivery evoked memories of a nerdy high school science teacher not a bluesman. But we hung around and gave him a chance. It soon became obvious Bill more than made up for any lack of “soul” in his singing with enthusiasm. He stirred the crowd up and had them shouting and dancing to that Hill Country sound. The other surprise was Bill’s partner, the beautiful Melissa Tong.  She was laying down wild fiddle solos!  Her feverish playing was the perfect complement to his more restrained vocals.

The next thing I noticed was that Bill and Melissa were backed up by an awfully talented group of famous musicians. Kinney Kimbrough was the driving force on drums, Eric Deaton handled bass, and Shannon McNally played second guitar behind Bill. These seasoned veterans could have made up an amazing band all on their own. With such talented backing, the show was guaranteed to be a high powered Hill Country dance party. Bill and Melissa performed quite a few from their new CD including, “Mattie and Donnie” and “Snakedrive.”

The place was bursting with people. It was too hot, too smoky, and too humid. The perfect atmosphere for a great time! There wasn’t much room to dance in front of the band but quite a few of us couldn’t help ourselves. Leslie and I found a small piece of rug off to the side of the band; we tore it up for quite a few songs. The Juke Joint Festival is never complete without at least one experience dancing and sweating in the hot smoky air at Red’s. The band outlasted our legs so we sat down as they finished the set with “Shake Em On Down.” This blues classic was originally recorded by Bukka White but is now identified with R.L. Burnside and the North Mississippi Allstars by the current generation of Hill Country fans. As Frank promised, Pork Chop Willie delivered the goods.    

Pork Chop Willie and Friends Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Pork Chop Willie and Friends Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Larry Dee’s Non-Stop Blues Performance

Larry Dee Ingram is a talented musician who played an electric keyboard and sang on the Delta Avenue sidewalk during the Juke Joint Festival. Originally from Lambert, Mississippi, Larry Dee spent much of his life in Chicago and Memphis. He’snow planning to relocate to Clarksdale MS.

Larry Dee is the definition of smooth. He seemed to be relaxed 24/7. Larry always conveyed the outlook that God’s next gift for him was just around the corner. Upon meeting Larry, I had the feeling I was in a time warp from a bygone era.  Speaking with him transported me to a time when manners, respect, kindness, and being an authentic person were the priorities in life.

Larry Dee didn’t just play a few songs, gather some tips and head home. He played all day Friday in front of the Delta Amusement Café and all day and part of the night Saturday in front of the Ground Zero Blues Club. Similar to Cheyenne Rae and the Blues Wizard, Larry Dee wasn’t on the Juke Joint Festival Program Schedule. He didn’t play at an official “stage” and had no band backing him. What he had was a deep respect and gratitude for the music he played, and the audiences who showed their appreciation. His enthusiasm was contagious. The man never stopped smiling while living his dream.

Arriving in Clarksdale with nothing but a keyboard and his talent; Larry Dee is making it happen. Since he began visiting the town last spring, Larry says Clarksdale has been good to him. Upon learning Larry’s keyboard was broken, a local businessman bought him a new one. Larry rewarded those who listened with a non-stop blues and R & B show. And what a show it was! He played some of his original songs such as “Drop Top” and “I’m Going to Clarksdale MS.” He also performed a host of other songs including a remarkable version of the Jerry Beach classic, “I’ll Play the Blues for You.”

Whether playing original songs or blues classics, Larry Dee played the blues as smooth as silk. Everything he performed was dripping with soul.It’s no surprise he says Al Green was his mentor. Larry Dee’s keyboard playing was just as impressive as his vocals and maintained that deep soul sound. He revealed he has recorded over eight demo CDs consisting of blues and gospel originals. Larry is working hard to make a name for himself. I can’t wait to hear his first CD.

Larry Dee Outside Ground Zero Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Larry Dee Outside Ground Zero Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Sunday Morning Lull

Sunday morning began with a bang! Our first stop was listening to another manic performance of Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band at the Cat Head stage. Afterward, we strolled down Delta Avenue to the Delta Amusement Café. Sunday morning breakfast was a welcomed respite after two and a half days of music, dancing, and photography. We sat down at a table in the quiet café. Staring at the outdated, brown wood paneling and red walls put me in a trance. Everyone in the place was giving off a warm, tranquil vibe. Lucious Spiller enjoyed a quiet breakfast with a friend at the next table. Bobby, the owner, was behind the bar busily making sure the orders were cooked on time. His granddaughter took ours. Her name is Tori Beth McClain. She is a beautiful, petite, young woman who moved with the casual swagger of youth. Cowboy boots, cutoff jean shorts, tie dyed tank top, and a trucker’s hat completed the picture of a sweet southern girl with just enough brashness to be cool. Three days of nonstop work were taking their toll on her energy level. Nevertheless, Tori Beth was polite and friendly. Her good-natured fatigue captured the mood of the café. We enjoyed breakfast as she collapsed in a chair for a well-deserved break. The laid-back scene with good food, friendly staff, and familiar faces made for the perfect haven. We were now rejuvenated for another full day of music!

Tori Beth Takes a Break @ Delta Amusement Cafe Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Tori Beth Takes a Break @ Delta Amusement Cafe Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Liz Mandeville Scratches her Kitty

If you’ve never had the pleasure of catching a Liz Mandeville performance, you don’t know what you are missing. Liz is hands down the bawdiest, most overtly sexual, and funniest woman performing blues today. At least half of her songs are full of double entendre. Her lyrics and vocal delivery hark back to the classic blues Divas of the 1920s and 30s. I missed her performance on Saturday but was fortunate to catch her act on Sunday afternoon in front of the Rock and Blues Museum.

Liz plays guitar and sings with a coquettish smile throughout her show. Her bawdiest song has to be “Scratch the Kitty.” It’s a hysterical song from her 2008 CD which includes the line: “Scratch my Kitty cause I want my Kitty to purr.” It takes Liz Mandeville’s special talent with humor and flirtation to pull off a song like this. The expressions on her face alone make you feel just a little bit dirty. She is such a talented comedienne and flirt. When comparing her to other famous performers, the first person who comes to mind is Mae West.

My other favorite song is from her latest CD entitled, “Clarksdale.” It’s called “Roadside Produce” and includes the line: “Taste my jelly and you’ll be back.” The song is pure Texas swing and chock full of fun double entendre.

Liz’s show always includes at least one song during which she hangs a washboard from her shoulders and walks out into the audience to play. She wriggles and writhes through the crowd playing to one audience member then another. With her flaming red hair, ample curves, and brazenly flirtatious manner, Liz could embarrass a sailor.

I love her attitude and sense of humor. She had the audience laughing merely talking about the soda in her hand. Liz spoke a great deal between songs; her between song banter constitutes a comedy act all its own. 

Liz Mandeville Enjoying HerselfLiz Mandeville Enjoying Herself Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Liz Mandeville Enjoying HerselfLiz Mandeville Enjoying Herself Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Liz Mandeville and her Washboard Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Liz Mandeville and her Washboard Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Liz Mandeville @ Rock N Blues Museum Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Liz Mandeville @ Rock N Blues Museum Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Liz and Theo @ Rock N Blues Museum Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Liz and Theo @ Rock N Blues Museum Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

The Gift Shop Trio

Late Sunday afternoon I was at the Juke Joint Chapel at Hopson Plantation. “Lightnin” Malcolm had finished his last set and we were waiting for Robert “Bilbo” Walker to begin playing. Later we would shake and swirl all over the dance floor to Bilbo’s hard charging rock-n-roll show. Still waiting, I wandered into the gift shop and began talking with owner Bill Talbot. Just as the conversation ended, a man began playing a small box guitar he pulled off the wall. His name was Bill Steber. He’s a Tennessee musician, journalist, and photographer. He currently performs with two bands: The Jake Leg Stompers and the Hoodoo Men. The song Bill played was an up-tempo number he calls, “Cow Cow Stomp.” It’s Bill’s version of the traditional blues song “Cow Cow Blues.” Joining him on the Jug (or in this case-his beer bottle) was Bill’s musical partner in crime: Sammy “Ramshackle” Baker. Neil Ladner, a photographer from Gulfport MS, made it a trio. He played bells which consisted of bottle caps on a stick. The bells were also pulled from the store shelves. This impromptu performance sounded fantastic; I immediately located Leslie and brought her into the gift shop to dance!

Bill’s wife Pat was kind enough to grab my camera and photograph us dancing in front of the band. After “Cow Cow Stomp,” Bill switched to a full sized guitar. Sammy began playing spoons instead of blowing in his beer bottle. Neil took out a harmonica. The next song up was “Feather Bed.”  It was a beautiful song Bill said he learned from the now deceased Joe Cole. Joe wasfrom Bobo Mississippi and he had been living in St. Louis prior to his death in 2005. Therefore, “Feather Bed” hadn’t been performed in Mississippi for at least a dozen years until the “Gift Shop Trio” performance.

But that was it. Two songs and the boys were done. Once again, an unplanned,   spontaneous performance became a moment to remember. Each year the festival leaves me with so many memories to savor. Experience them for yourself at the next Juke Joint Festival.

The Gift Shop Trio (2) Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

The Gift Shop Trio (2) Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival 2014

Thank you, Ray, for sharing this piece with our readers.

We hope our readers will make plans to attend Juke Joint Festival 2015 or any other time of year in Clarksdale, Heart of the Mississippi Delta. We would love to have you be our guest at the DELTA BOHEMIAN GUEST HOUSE. Take a BACK ROAD OR PEDICAB EXCURSION TOUR while you are here.


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