Just a few weeks ago, I went back for another fun-filled three day weekend at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. It’s one of my very favorite festivals, situated in the town that hosted the King Biscuit Time radio show, with the main stage facing the Mississippi River levee, where thousands of fans are seated. There are other stages (including a youth artists’ stage) within easy walking distance, plus street musicians, seminars, food trucks and all kinds of other local concessions. Helena is now an extremely depressed town, with lots of ruined buildings and all-too-obvious poverty. But on Festival weekend, the town comes alive and everyone gets in the spirit.
The only problem with “The Biscuit” (as everyone calls it) is the plethora of riches –there are too many artists on too many stages and no matter which one you see, there’s someone you’re going to miss. Plus, many Mississippi and Arkansas musicians appear, including some who rarely tour outside the region. As I expected, the Alligator artists —Gulf Coast piano queen Marcia Ball, newly inducted Blues Hall of Famer Joe Louis Walker and James “Mr. Superharp” Cotton— delivered outstanding sets. Among many other memorable sets were those by Anson Funderburgh with Big Joe Mayer, The Andy T-Nick Nixon Band, Robert Cray, Paul Thorn, and this year’s young IBC winner, Selwyn Birchwood. This is just a great festival, and a treat for any blues fan.
As I told you last time, we’re gearing up for the January release of Tommy Castro’s highly-anticipated new album, The Devil You Know, (just in time for the next Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise followed by a major national tour), Joe Louis Walker’s latest, Hornets Nest, in February, and the U.S./Canadian release of Brotherhood by The Holmes Brothers at the beginning of April (it’s already out in the rest of the world). I’ll tell you more about all of these outstanding albums next time.
In the last issue, I was remembering the recording of Lonnie Brooks’ 1988 live album, Live From Chicago—Bayou Lightning Strikes. Over the years, we’ve cut quite a few live albums, and I’ve learned some good rules to follow. Although it’s sometimes possible to have that marvelous night when an artist is at his peak for every song, you can’t count on that. So I generally like to record live albums over three evenings. The first night gives the band a chance to get used to the monitor speaker mix and the feel of the room. If the vibe is right, we might get top notch versions of three or four songs. The next night, when everyone is relaxed, should yield the bulk of the recording. At the end of each night, the artist and I listen to every take and decide which ones are keepers and which need to be redone. The third night is when the pressure is really on! It’s the last chance to capture that perfect performance.
A lot of live albums are basically an artist’s greatest hits performed live, but I believe fans want new songs, too. So I like to precede any live recording with plenty of rehearsal, both to break in the new tunes and to make sure that we have a set list that reflects the greatest strengths of the artist or band. With this album, we were introducing three new songs. Two of them, Born With The Blues and Trading Post, were newly written by Lonnie and the third, Got Me By The Tail, was by rhythm guitarist Osee Anderson and Marge Sampson. We were also bringing back some tunes like In The Dark that Lonnie hadn’t played in a while, plus cutting new versions of key songs from his live show–Two Headed Man, Eyeballin’, Cold Lonely Nights and One More Shot, as well as Lonnie’s perennial set-closer, Freddie King’s Hideaway. We rehearsed these and many more songs in the basement of Lonnie’s home on the far South Side, squeezing the whole band into a tight, cramped space. I wanted tight performances, but also the high energy vibe that comes when the musicians and the crowd are feeding off each other.
Lonnie was very excited, because he had just been given a fancy new amplifier designed by a famous pickup manufacturer, with all kinds of special features. But instead of helping the shows, it turned out to be our biggest problem.
More next time,