The campers started showing up as early as last weekend, setting up their tents along the levee in downtown Helena. The annual King Biscuit Blues Festival "feels like it's going to be bigger even than usual," said Terry Buckalew, deputy director of the Delta Cultural Center. "It's a huge shot in the arm to Helena and all the towns in Arkansas and Mississippi within 30 or 40 miles, economically speaking."
King Biscuit has attracted hordes of blues lovers to the birthplace of the musical form for the last 26 years. This year, the organizers are expecting about 50,000 attendees, said Munnie Jordan, executive director of the festival.
"It'll be a very user-friendly, calm festival where people can really enjoy coming and putting their chairs on the levee and hanging out," she said.
"It's an outstanding blues lineup," Jordan said. "Probably it's heavier duty than last year, to tell you the truth. The blues people are really, really excited about it."
The "blues people" she referred to are no doubt the hardcore blues buffs, many of whom often travel from points way, way off yonder to attend King Biscuit. Jordan said a significant percentage of festival-goers are from outside the United States.
"Croatia, Germany, Norway, The Netherlands, Italy," she said. "We had a four-page spread in this Italian magazine. I was so excited, but I don't know what in the heck it says because I can't read it."
Buckalew echoed that assessment, citing the festival's international appeal. Particularly, there always seems to be a lot of visitors from the Low Countries and the U.K., as well as a fair number from Japan, he said.
"It really makes you appreciate Helena and the King Biscuit Festival when you're made so aware that people from all over the world still take it so seriously," he said. "I have a friend from Tasmania and he comes to the states every year and goes from Memphis to New Orleans on kind of a blues pilgrimage, and Helena is a focal point."
As Jordan pointed out, there are indeed some heavy hitters included in this year's lineup. James Cotton — the protege of Sonny Boy Williamson who replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters' band — plays Thursday night. Hubert Sumlin, who was Howlin' Wolf's guitar player for more than two decades and who's a legend in his own right, plays Friday afternoon. Don Nix — who played in The Mar-Keys — also plays Friday afternoon. On Saturday, Memphis soul and R&B will be well represented with the Stax Revue, which features singer-songwriter Eddie Floyd ("Knock on Wood") and Donald "Duck" Dunn and Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MG's. And of course, there are the festival headliners, including blues giants Buddy Guy (Thursday), Bobby Rush and Delbert McClinton (Friday) and Keb' Mo' (Saturday).
In addition to the music and food, this year's festival includes some educational events where you can get your blues learnin' on. At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Buckalew and KFFA DJ Sonny Payne host "Pass the Biscuits: King Biscuit Time Radio's 70th Anniversary, 1941-2011," a discussion of the history of the legendary radio show.
"Call and Response: The King Biscuit Blues Forum" kicks off Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at the Malco Theater. The panel discussion includes more than just stuffy blues scholars, though there will be plenty of them on hand. Actual bona fide blues musicians will be in the mix, talking blues history, telling stories and maybe cracking a joke or two, if the audience is lucky. T-Model Ford, Lonnie Shields, Cedric Burnside, Tommy Castro and several others are slated to participate, as well as Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff, BluesWax editor Don Wilcock and Blues Revue editor Art Tipaldi.
Tickets ($30) will be sold at the gate; online sales have closed.