After 23 years of free admission, the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (forever, regardless of what some terrible New York-based entertainment company says, known as King Biscuit) finally charges for access to its main stage this year. But fear not, tightwads, it's a negligible cost to you that allows one of Arkansas's most beloved music festivals to keep on keeping on — an uncertain prospect after last year's festival, according to associate director Daniel Sims.
“The festival had some financial issues. Leadership was not in place. The love for the festival was there, but those who were planning in it weren't organizationally on point,” Sims said.
It's only since July that Sims and new executive director Munnie Jordan, who served as festival director from 1992 to 1997, have been in place to coordinate and fund-raise for the three-day festival, which, according to Sims, costs in the neighborhood of $350,000 to $400,000 to produce. That without the financial support of longtime major backer Isle of Capri Casinos.
So again, Biscuitheads, be thankful for what you've got. This year, too, there's way more than ambience in store (ambience long being the chief attraction; I'd sit through Stevie Ray wannabes noodling for hours as long as I had a turkey leg, cold beer and good seat atop the levee).
On Thursday, the Cate Brothers (10:30 p.m.), legends in this state and beyond for their genre-defying soul/blues/country/rock, reunite, as they're wont to do for special occasions.
Friday, West Memphis native and longtime Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin shares the stage with local hero Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (5:30 p.m.), who played with Muddy Waters in the '60s. Camden native Michael Burks (8:45 p.m.) might be the preeminent guitarist in contemporary blues; his latest album is “Iron Man,” named for the nickname he earned for his intense stage show. Longtime festival vet and soul-blues hero Bobby Rush (10:30 p.m.) performs weeks before “Don't Start Me Talking,” a documentary about his life, debuts at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
Saturday, Greenville, Miss., native T. Model Ford (1:20 p.m.) plays what's bound to be one of the highlights. His is a raw and rhythmic blues, full of lyrics both traditional and bizarre (“Chicken Head Man” stands out in particular). Ford's label mate on Fat Possum, Robert Belfour (2:40 p.m.), specializes in percussive and hypnotic Hill Country blues. A vet of Frank Frost and the Nighthawks (along with the late Sam Carr) and the Jelly Roll Kings, Big Jack Johnson (5:30 p.m.) is arguably the most respected player working in the blues mecca of Clarksdale. Last but not least, decorated Memphis harp player Blind Mississippi Morris (10 p.m.) closes the festival out.
Like Daniel Sims says, “There's not many places you can go in America where you can get quality entertainment for $5 or $10.”