A Mississippi State of Mind: Reflections of the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival

Lucious Spiller during the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival 2011

Lucious Spiller during the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival 2011. Photo by Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo

Story and Photographs by Guest Delta Bohemian Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo

CLARKSDALE, Mississippi

Enjoy this account of our historical Sunflower festival by Guest Delta Bohemian writer and photographer Ray Proetto, founder of Blues Power Photo. Please check out Ray’s website and his vast array of outstanding photographs after you enjoy his story and photos here on The Delta Bohemian. Thanks for your contribution, Ray!  PHOTO GALLERY AT BOTTOM OF POST

For something completely different….

If you’re familiar with the Blues Festival scene and you’re beginning to notice many of the same artists showing up at your favorite festivals, then it’s time to check out the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.

For genuine Mississippi musicians including some of the last older Delta blues guitar players, the 24th Annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival was the place to be.

Almost all of the musicians in the lineup knew each other and quite a few of Clarksdale’s residents too.  Many of the local artists perform throughout the weekend often playing in each other’s bands.  The whole event takes on the character of this small town.  Here is one of the few festivals I’ve attended where the artists and fans are truly integrated.  This adds to the festival’s small town appeal and authentic Mississippi state of mind.

This was my second year attending so I knew just how much fun was about to be had.  The festival ran from Friday August 12 thru Sunday August 14.  In addition to the electric bands featured on the Main Delta Museum stage, there were acoustic performances from 9:00am thru 6:00pm on Saturday.  Various clubs and other venues also presented lineups of their own throughout the festival.

The Festival Begins… 

The Main stage kicked off late Friday afternoon and I arrived just in time for the second act, Richard “Daddy Rich” Crisman.  Daddy Rich started hitting some really wild notes on his guitar!  The man can play and I especially enjoyed his song entitled “Clarksdale” which should be the local anthem for the festival.

Clarksdalian and Delta Bohemian Daddy Rich performing on the stage of the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival. Photo by DB Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo

Clarksdalian and Delta Bohemian Daddy Rich performing on the stage of the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival. Photo by DB Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo

The show actually began earlier for me around Noon at the Ground Zero Blues Club.   I had a catfish sandwich and caught one of my favorite bands, Heavy Suga and the Sweetones.  The band is usually a three piece with Heather Crosse on bass and vocals, Lee Williams on drums and Walt Busby on guitar.  Today they were also joined by Jacqueline Nassar on guitar.  Covering all bases, the band played jazz, up tempo blues, and slow blues with equal effectiveness.  I thoroughly enjoyed the two guitar attack.  Jacqueline’s biting guitar licks contrasted nicely with Walt’s smoother, usually faster style.

Honoring Big Jack Johnson…

Leaving Ground Zero, I was off to Red’s Blues Lounge for a bronze sidewalk plaque dedication for the late and great Big Jack Johnson.  He is the latest to be permanently honored in the Clarksdale “Walk of Fame.”  It was a touching ceremony with words from his good friend Red Paden and others including Big Jack’s family.  Terry “Harmonica” Bean followed the ceremony with a rocking 30 minute set of blues inside the club.  Then, after a sidewalk interview with Terry, I was off to the Main stage for Daddy Rich.

Up after Daddy Rich was the Deuce and Quarter Band and the TCB Blues Band who closed with a killer funky version of “Crosscut Saw.”  Then I headed up the block on Yazoo to the Bluesberry Café to catch a not to be missed Brandon Santini.  He performed with bass and guitar while tearing into his harmonica and singing some really soulful blues that left me begging for more.

Back at the main stage, Joshua “Razor Blade” Stewart put on a crowd pleasing vocal performance right after the sun set and had everyone in the audience singing along with “Don’t let the green grass fool you.”

The last two performers on the main stage were definitely more R & B than blues.  David Brinston was followed by Nathaniel Kimble who was the headliner for the night.  Obviously a crowd favorite, especially with the women, he sang with a super-cool, smooth style while dancing and mixing it up with the fans throughout his show.  After Kimble’s show I stopped at Pete’s Grill where Terry “Big T” Williams and his band kept the fans dancing until at least 2:00am!

Saturday was full of choices…

If you’re a fan of the older traditional blues artists, then the Saturday morning acoustic stage was the place to be.  Although it was moved to the Main stage due to threat of rain, the rain stayed away as five old timers did their thing.   Arthneice “Gas Man” Jones, Robert Belfour (my personal favorite of the group), Eddie Cusic, Pat Thomas, and T-Model Ford performed.  T-Model drew the most attention from the fans performing with the talented guitarist Bill Abel.

Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Photo by DB Ray Proetto with Blues Power Photo

Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Photo by DB Ray Proetto with Blues Power Photo

After T-Model, blues musician and music teacher Johnny Billington brought some very young students on stage to perform.  He was followed by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band.  After singing one of my favorites, “Sittin on top of the world,” they marched off the stage singing “Glory Glory.”  I always enjoy Sharde’s enthusiasm and beautiful voice.  You can really feel the soul of Mississippi in this young woman’s performances.

Lucious Spiller and Anthony “Big A” Sherrod were two of the performers at the second Acoustic stage.  During each song, Lucious Spiller alternated soft playing and singing with explosions of energy!  His voice would suddenly boom and soar with power while he pulled so hard on the guitar strings it seemed impossible they didn’t break.  Anthony and his band played an inspired electric set on the Acoustic stage.   Everyone seemed to really enjoy his show.  I especially liked his version of “Catfish Blues.”

Slim shows a big heart…

A few blocks over back at the Bluesberry Café, Watermelon Slim was jamming with a 14 year old guitarist named Alex Menick.  Alex played rhythm guitar and an occasional flourish of solo notes while Slim taught him the ins and outs of accompanying a lead player.  Although it was moving to watch the joy on Alex’s face as he played an entire set with Slim, I couldn’t make out who was enjoying the moment more, Alex or Watermelon Slim?

Terry “Big T” Williams was my favorite Main stage performer on Saturday.  He comes alive up on the big stage and plays the heck out of his guitar.  Mixing Blues with R & B numbers, he bends his guitar strings until they moan, scream and cry out.  He always leaves you wanting just a little more.  A cute surprise during Terry’s show was his very young grandson,  Vonterrious “Dewman” Williams, on stage playing air guitar.

Honoring those we’ve lost…

Next up was Maie Smith, an employee of the Delta Blues Museum and Co-Chair of the Festival.  She presented plaques to the families of six Clarksdale Blues figures who we’ve lost within the past year.  Those honored included Big Jack Johnson, Sarah Moore, Wesley Jefferson, Foster “Tater” Wiley, James Alford, and Michael James.  She was accompanied by Melville Tillis, the other Co-Chair, and Chris Coleman, also a museum employee and member of the Sunflower Blues Association.

Sarah Mae Metcalf performing on the Delta Blues Museum stage during the 2011 Sunflower Blues Festival in Clarksdale. Photo by DB Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo

Sarah Mae Metcalf performing on the Delta Blues Museum stage during the 2011 Sunflower Blues Festival in Clarksdale. Photo by DB Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo

In honor of those lost, the beautiful and talented singer Sarah Mae Metcalf performed two songs.  What a voice!  What stage presence!  All I want to know is why this local talent wasn’t on the bill and performing a whole set at the festival?  She was followed by Bill “Howlin Madd” Perry whose band took the stage and put on another fine set of blues.

Following Bill’s show, I decided to take a dinner break and head back to the Riverside Hotel when I heard the Tullie Brae Band blasting out the door of Red’s Blues Lounge.  Tullie Brae demands attention.  She’s an attractive woman with a big voice and long curly blonde hair who stands about six feet tall and dances all over the room as she performs.  But the real kicker was her band.  A top notch crew of old and young who either rocked hard or burned the house down with slow blues.

After dinner and a chat with RAT, the owner of the Riverside Hotel, I headed back to the Main stage.  When headliner Dorothy Moore finally took the stage late in the evening, the Museum grounds were still packed.  Despite admitting to the crowd she is no longer a young woman, Dorothy wowed the crowd with a powerful voice and an emotional performance throughout her show.

When Dorothy closed out the Main stage shows, more than a few fans headed over to Ground Zero to catch James “Super Chikan” Johnson and his band.  Super Chikan and his crew never fail to put on a great show.  My favorite was his extended version of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” which the band played up tempo and turned the house into a nonstop dance party.

Watermelon Slim and Alex Menick performing at Bluesberry Cafe during the 2011 Sunflower River Blues Festival. Photo by DB Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo

Watermelon Slim and Alex Menick performing at Bluesberry Cafe during the 2011 Sunflower River Blues Festival. Photo by DB Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo

Sunday and the music never stops…

Sunday morning I made my way to Delta Avenue and heard Robert Belfour,  one of the many musicians performing in front of the Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art Store.  Robert Belfour plays guitar in the North MS Hill Country blues style and sings with a deep moaning growl.  His show always relaxes me and puts me in a blues trance.  At Noon I made my way to Ground Zero for one more set of Heavy Suga and the Sweetones.   It was an unexpected treat when Joshua “Razorblade” Stewart sat in and sang “I’ll play the blues for you” and “Ain’t that loving you.”

Gospel Rocks the House!

Late Sunday afternoon, the Clarksdale City Auditorium became the Sunflower River Festival Gospel Stage.  I watched the last three of six performances.  They were all impressive and enjoyable.  The Myles Family had the entire crowd on its feet as they walked off the stage and down in front of the seats for their final song.  The Jamar Esaw Triad was an enormous chorus whose combined voices almost blew the roof off the building!  The closer was Evelyn Turrentine-Agee.  This veteran Gospel singer and her band really motivated the crowd in worship and had everyone up and moving to their call and response show stopper, “God Did It.”

Can’t get enough Blues…   

Never content to call it a night, I made two more stops.  One in Red’s for a Jam session lead by Terry “Harmonica” Bean and the other at Pete’s Grill for just a little more Terry “Big T” Williams,before finally finding my pillow in the Riverside Hotel.

I said goodbye to RAT and his family on Monday morning but I took my Mississippi state of mind with me.  Back home in Florida I’m somehow more relaxed.  I find myself smiling often as I think about all the good times and new friends I left behind in Clarksdale.

Thanks for Delta Bohemian Ray Proetto’s contribution and excellent report of the Sunflower Fest! Check out bluespowerphoto.com!

Photographer Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo with Bill Howlin Madd Perry. Photo by The Delta Bohemian

Photographer Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo with Bill Howlin Madd Perry. Photo by The Delta Bohemian

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Comments

  1. Ray, thank you so much for your roving reporter/photographer post. What a blessing to have this on the Delta Bohemian! Thank you! Awesome!

    • You are so welcome. I can’t say enough about how much I’ve enjoyed Blues Festivals in MS and meeting so many Delta/Clarksdale Bohemians this past year.
      Ray Proetto

  2. Anna/Gail Black says:

    Ray, this is St. Louis Frank’s girlfriend, Anna from Arkansas. Were you present at Ground Zero when they honored the folks who died this past year? Did you hear “The Poet” read his poem about Big Jack? I would LOVE to get ahold of a copy of that, and/or The Poet himself, if you know of any way to.

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