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The blues abides

After a rocky couple of years, the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival still goes strong.



Just two years removed from those Memphis money-grubbers cheating history and tradition to steal away the King Biscuit name, the Helena blues fest, now renamed the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (say it with me three times), caught the blues again.

The nonprofit Sonny Boy Blues Society, which annually presents the festival, had its assets frozen by the IRS for improper filing.

Four months later, with the debt nearly erased, the show goes on — just as it has for more than 20 years. Still free and still the best excuse for watching the mighty Mississip roll by while eating a turkey leg, the festival remains an annual rite of seasonal passage for nearly 100,000 souls, who travel far and wide for an old-fashioned, good-time get-down.

Among those expected to attend this year: a canoeing pair on a planned two-day float down the Big River from Memphis. Billy Ray, head of the Helena-West Helena Chamber of Commerce, mentioned by phone on Monday that he'd just talked to the person who deposited the canoers. “He said he thinks they have enough food, but knows they had plenty of beer,” Ray said with a chuckle. Also, in Tent City, the Helena-West Helena Fire Department-controlled campground that's big enough to rate a website (www.tentcityusa.com), a wedding between two former festival-goers who met in Tent City is set to take place.

The booze and food — a delicious range from barbecue to Cajun to funnel cakes — help inspire such passions, but of course it's the blues that have made the festival one of the largest in the country (the ABHF folks say it's the third biggest). The music kicks off on Thursday at noon and runs until 11:45 p.m. Saturday.

On Thursday night, the Lee Boys headline at 10:30 p.m. One of the most vibrant purveyors of sacred steel, a unique gospel-rooted genre that follows a hard-driving blues beat, the Florida quintet features hypnotic pedal-steel guitar work. Quickly becoming an in-demand act in jam circles, they're a sight to behold live.

Legendary blues drummer Sam Carr, who began his career backing his father, Robert Nighthawk, and has spent the last several decades working with Fat Possum artists, plays early on Friday, at 2:35 p.m., with his band the Delta Jukes and with special guest Dave Riley, a Mississippi bluesman who has an album called “Whiskey, Money & Women.” Later, at 5:30 p.m., the much-esteemed 94-year-old blues pianist Pinetop Perkins performs with “Steady Rollin'” Bob Margolin. Raucous Chicago band Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials follow at 7 p.m. At 10:30 p.m., Camden-native Michael Burks jams with the Albert King acolyte Carl Weathersby and Larry McCray.

At 7:10 p.m. Saturday, legendary axeman Hubert Sumlin joins Helena native Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and his band. Sumlin, of course, is famous for his work with Howlin' Wolf, while Smith played drums with Muddy Waters. At 8:45 p.m., Kenny Neal brings together swamp blues, funk, soulful vocals and searing guitar work. Finally, closing out the festival at 10:30 p.m., the Mannish Boys offer an all-star line-up capable of pulling off just about any blues style.

One last thing not to miss: The National Trust's Rural Heritage Development Initiative this weekend unveils Arkansas DeltaMade, a branding program featuring 25 locally made, high-quality arts, crafts and foods. They'll have a table set up at the festival.

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