Back in the day, The Observer's Rich Uncle Alan, better known as El Jefe around the Times, was something of a free spirit. He hitchhiked around Central America, drove a cab in the wee hours and appeared nude in the Times. Sometimes he takes us to lunch and talks wistfully of those wild, bygone days — and then he blinks and remembers that he's the captain of a modest publishing empire who wears a tie everyday, and starts back talking about integrative marketing or vertical integration or something equally free spirit-less.
We try, from time to time, to tempt Wild Uncle Al out of hiding, but these days, when he's not pounding the pavement trying to keep the Times rolling along, he stays out in the country, content to rise and slumber with the sun and play in his garden.
All of which is to say, when he told us that, in an integrative marketing effort (or was it something about vertical integration?), he was chartering two buses to haul Times readers to Helena for the King Biscuit Blues Festival, we volunteered our services immediately. Because, of course, nothing inspires reformed wild men to let their hair down again like the blues. We weren't disappointed.
Uncle Al showed up at 9:15 a.m. last Saturday at the departure point in Little Rock, wearing shorts and sandals, and lugging two kegs of beer. Blues bus riders merrily accepted his party offering. After take-off, one of the two buses in the blues fleet head-bobbed to a live performance from Central Arkansas's blues standard-bearer, Bluesboy Jag, who dealt with the bumps in the road with a little extra bend in his notes. The other jammed out to Cedell Davis' tribute to Pine Bluff ("If You Like Fat Women, Come to Pine Bluff, Arkansas") and other favorites on the bus stereo and played trivia for Bloody Marys. Quick, what's Sonny Boy Williamson II's real name?
By the time our two touring coaches stopped for a barbecue lunch at Craig's in DeVall's Bluff — or rather Craig's over-flow dining area in a church down the road a piece — those kegs were floated. Luckily Craig's sliced pork and Miss Mary's coconut cream pie soaks up the booze quite well.
The blues fleet landed in Helena a little after 2 p.m., and several hot hours later The Observer spied Uncle Al doing a woo-hoo dance on the train tracks that bisect the levee in front of the stage, next to a congregation of blues bus-ers.
We spent much of the rest of the evening exploring, taking in the street buskers — some of whom were quite good — and eating too many crawfish pies. But from time to time, we checked in with the crew and always found Uncle Al and friends dancing or at least shaking it in their seats. At midnight, back on the bus, everyone was bleary eyed — except Uncle Al, who got on the mic to talk about the power of Taj Mahal's performance.
Take heart, longtime readers of the Times who might remember those good ol' wild days fondly. They're not dead. It just takes the right trip. Who knows where the Times might journey to next time?
What we didn't know about the Helena blues festival, which will be recrowned King Biscuit next year, is that the action is all over town, and so are the foreigners, both American (from all over) and European. At a bar we slipped into to rest our ears (though Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica was the best we've ever heard) and procure a non-beer beverage (served in Styrofoam cups! Takeout booze in Ark-in-saw!) a great big blond guy gave us a really goofy smile. He was one of several great big blond guys at the bar and, we realized, had given us that smile because he didn't speak English. These guys — taking an uneducated guess here — were all Dutch. They came a long way — and several more degrees Fahrenheit — to hear the blues.
What a busy night it was in that bar, too. The joint across from the festival entrance made it possible to enjoy the festival (we've been waiting to see Taj Mahal for 40 years, and he was better than ever) and the Razorback football game and bring the body temperature down. The busy bartender was graceful under fire. We doubt business in Helena is quite that good most Saturday nights. He said it was nothing, however, compared to his day job, teaching 9th and 10th grade English. He wasn't from Arkansas either, but was working in Marvell for Teach for America. Bet he was learning a lot.