We planned on traveling up Highway 61, the long stretch of road that starts in New Orleans and runs through Natchez, Vicksburg and Clarksdale, in Mississippi, then goes onward to Memphis, Tennessee and ends in Wyoming, Minnesota. Running parallel to the Mississippi, the great River Road was traveled by countless Blues musicians on their way north, like Robert Johnson, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, James Cotton, Junior Parker and Charlie Musselwhite.
I was looking for authentic juke joints, which are rare these days, or any cool venues to hear some good Blues along the way. I came across a great website, cathead.biz which had the most comprehensive calendar I’ve ever seen. I noticed that Jesse Robinson, the great Blues guitarist, was having his 70th birthday celebration on May 29 at the Underground 119 in Jackson, and the poster said to call with questions. So I called. And who answered the phone but the man himself! I got the details for the festivities and just as I was ready to say goodbye, he said, “you know B.B.King is having his last homecoming tomorrow at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola.”
And then he added, “And its free!”
We check our map. 279 miles from New Orleans. Gates open at noon, concert starts at 2:00. If we leave New Orleans at 7:00 a.m., we should be able to get there and get great seats. Keep in mind that being night owls, we are not early birds. We rarely set an alarm and we usually don’t leave campsites before 10:00 —and for us, 200 miles is a banner day. But hey, it’s B.B. King live! And it’s free!
We arrive at 12:30. We still get front row seats! We set up our lawn chairs, attach our portable umbrellas, don our hats, and grease up with #30 sunscreen.
There is a lineup of local high school groups and a religious choir.
It isn’t exactly what we came for, and certainly not worth the sweltering 90 degree weather.
The afternoon drags on, and we are slowly melting. And to make matters worse, the sound is deafening. Either we’re getting too old, or the sound man is hard of hearing. Manny tells him about it. Nothing changes. We find out B.B. (Blues Boy) King isn’t coming on until 8:00. Disheartened and worried about sunstroke and going deaf, we head back to the camper at 5:00 for a nap, thus missing the better warm-up acts.
When we return to hear the great man, we realize it wouldn’t have mattered if we had stayed and waited. When B.B. King finally comes on, the crowd rushes the stage. Fans who got there early are pushed aside by those more brazen. Manny is determined and secures a spot front and center. He stands his ground, holding his video camera high, doing what he does so well. Looking tired and a bit frail, B.B. King still mesmerizes the adoring crowd with his unique style, his facial expressions, incredible guitar work and soulful sound.
You are probably wondering, would we do it again? Absolutely! When would we ever get a chance to hear this 87 year old legend?
The next stop on our personal Blues trail odyssey is Underground 119 in Jackson for Jesse Robinson’s 70th birthday celebration. The place fits my picture of a Blues night club perfectly. It is unobtrusively located down a flight of stairs below street level, behind a big steel entry door. The lighting is dim and a blue spot light barely illuminates the stage. There are lots of small tables covered with tablecloths, an area with big cozy leather chairs and sofas for intimate conversation.
The place is packed with well wishers when we arrive. Fortunately, we get there just in time for the opening number. I have never seen four saxophones at one time as the lead. The well dressed crowd loves their sweet sound. It is obvious that Jesse has a lot of friends, and so many have come out to celebrate with him. The arrangement of Happy Birthday has to be the sexiest, hippest version I have ever heard!
The Blues is everywhere in the Delta, even at the Ameristar Casino in Vicksburg. For obvious reasons, casinos often offer camping on their premises. The sites are usually little more than a space in their parking lot. At Ameristar Hotel, Casino and RV Park, however, they offer a real campground. Granted, there is not much in the way of landscaping or shade trees, but there are full hookups, level sites, a pool, an immaculate laundry room and showers —and a free shuttle to the casino— all for just $22.50. We get our laundry done, a safe place to stay, and a night on the town.
At the Bottleneck Blues Bar inside the Casino, we get a chance to hear the Selwyn Birchwood band. It is easy to see why the group won first place at the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis and how Selwyn, the smooth, high energy, good looking lead, took home honors as Best guitarist.
A musical tour of the Delta wouldn’t be complete without some Gospel. Lucky for us, we glimpse a roadside banner announcing the Deep Delta Festival in the tiny town of Rolling Fork that Saturday morning, with the Sharkey Issaquena Mass Choir and the New Living Way Church Choir as the opening acts. So we get up early (again) and head for the community happening. What an experience. You can’t help but be moved by the contemporary sound, so deeply moored in profound faith. The choir members bounce and rock that stage as they sing in praise of their Lord.
There are two completely different happening places in Clarksdale. We start and end our weekend at Red’s Lounge, a small hole in the wall with 8 seats that line the bar, a few next to the stage including a couple of comfy overstuffed lounge chairs and a half dozen tables. It has the feel of a real juke joint: red lights illuminate the tiny stage, the beer comes out of a cooler, and the crowd is serious about the Blues. Like the bar, Red —the owner— is the real thing, a no frills kind of guy. He prides himself on being “in the business” in Clarksdale for forty years, and seems to be everywhere and knows everything about everybody who is anybody —and even the nobodies like us— in town. We kiddingly call him the unofficial mayor of Clarksdale. He doesn’t object.
The entertainment at Red’s that weekend are chronological bookends. Saturday night features Leo Welch, a guitarist and Gospel singer, who at age 82 just cut his first CD and, with no time to lose, is feverishly working on his second one. Sunday night, Kingfish, a fifteen year old guitar sensation, holds the audience captivated as he belts out songs about love and loss. He has the skill and stage presence of Buddy Guy inside the body of an overweight teenage boy. He is truly unbelievable; my eyes can barely sync what my ears are hearing.
Right down the street is the new kid in town, the Ground Zero Blues Club, which opened in 2001. Since Morgan Freeman is one of the owners, the venue gets a lot of publicity and attracts a diverse audience. Some are there because of the hype, some for the music, some to eat, drink and have a good time. The place is huge and offers a menu of local specialties, mostly fried. (They fry everything in the Delta—even the pickles.) The night we are there the music is great. The All Night Long Blues Band has two of the quirkiest looking musicians, right out of a scene from the Beverly Hillbillies.
Sean “BAD” Apple, the lead guitarist, sports a straw fedora and a long, scraggly beard à la Z.Z. Top, and charms the crowd with his off beat sense of humor. His partner, Martin “BIGBOY” Grant, plays a mean harmonica dressed in a farmer’s overalls, while he struts, weaving and bobbing his 300 pounds of energy around the stage. Quite the sight, these two. The atmosphere is upbeat and the crowd is either on the dance floor or movin’ and groovin’ in their seats.
Before we turn in for the night, we check out the newly opened Rust Restaurant, right next door to the Shack Up Inn, where we stay for two nights. There is a huge group from Texas gathered to hear the Country Blues star Kenny Brown play his cool slide guitar. The beer is flowing and the crowd is dancing. A perfect way to end our weekend in Clarksdale.
If you want to sample a taste of the Mississippi Delta Blues we so enjoyed, watch this video: