A veritable Who’s Who of icons, legends, today’s hot finds and tomorrow’s trend setters are expected to perform at this year’s King Biscuit Festival, scheduled for Oct. 9-12 in Helena, Ark.
More than 100 performers will play on six stages along the banks of the Mississippi River.
The blues were born in Helena’s fertile delta mud, and the festival is built on a heritage that dates back 78 years. Live blues radio started here with Sonny Boy Williamson II and the King Biscuit Boys on KFFA’s King Biscuit Time radio show in 1941. And the threads of that legacy are woven through this year’s lineup.
“Time stands still. It really does.” Delbert McClinton, Friday night’s headliner at the 34th annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, describes that moment in a performance where the artist and the fans become one. And the rest of the world disappears. “Everything is just right. Everybody is just pushing in the right place and pulling at the right place. Well, that’s what being a live act is all about. There are no problems. No problems at all. Without ever flinching, you say, ‘Well, you gotta move the mountain. No problem. I’ll get right on it in just a minute.’”
More than half a century into his career, McClinton is a transformative live performer. He’s earned two GRAMMYs in the blues category; he taught John Lennon how to play harp; he duets with Bonnie Raitt on “Good Man, Good Woman,” which won a GRAMMY in Best Rock Performance by a duo or group. “Giving It Up for Your Love” was number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and number 35 Adult Contemporary. His duet with Tanya Tucker went Top 5 Country. But more important than that, he gives his audience an out-of-body concert experience. His version of “Standing on Shaky Ground” has been stopping shows for decades.
The King Biscuit Blues Festival has been making time stand still for 34 years, earning its reputation for being the Holy Grail of blues festivals. You can expect nothing less from Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Saturday night’s headliner.
“It’s been my approach to take blues from the foundation and try to take it elsewhere,” says Shepherd, “because you don’t have rock without blues.”
With eight number one blues albums and a string of number one rock singles, he is arguably the most successful blues/rock crossover act since Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Ruthie Foster, Thursday night’s headliner, is a three-time GRAMMY nominee.
“I’m not just singing the blues, I’m singing my own story,” said Foster.
When she played the Biscuit in 2015, she said it felt like home.
“It’s very warm. It feels like I’m with my people.”
Foster’s just been nominated for the Blues Foundation’s 2019 Koko Taylor Award for Best Traditional Blues Female Artist of The Year and in February was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone says she’s “pure magic to watch and hear.”
The relationships between artists playing this year and iconic bluesmen from the past is evident throughout the lineup.
Thursday will feature Cedric Burnside, the grandson of R. L. Burnside, who was the patriarch of the Delta’s Hill Country blues. Cedric’s Benton County Relic was nominated for this year’s Best Traditional Blues GRAMMY.
Chris O’Leary spent six years in Levon Helm’s Barnburners band. Levon founded the iconic rock band The Band and was a beloved local resident. His influences are on stage everywhere from lifelong friend C. W. Gatlin to The Cate Brothers, whose involvement with Levon dates back to late ’50s. Levon was on their debut album that yielded their biggest hit, “Union Man.”
Bob Margolin was Muddy Waters’ lead guitarist and the only original musician participating in the 2017 Last Waltz 40th anniversary tour. His appearance with Bob Stroger and Kenny “Big Eyes” Smith is the closest fans will get to that incomparable Muddy Waters sound.
Billy Branch played harmonica for Willie Dixon’s band. Big George Brock watched Muddy Waters dive into the Mississippi the day he broke away from the Stovall Plantation.
Larry McCray tempered his Motor City guitar style with memories of sitting outside of an Arkansas church as a kid listening to the gospel music.
Twenty-eight-year-old live blues sensation Marquis Knox brings the electric blues styles of Muddy Waters into the 21st century. His debut album Manchild was nominated for a Blues Music Award for Best New Artist Debut and earned Living Blues’ Best Debut Artist Award and a Blues Music Award nomination for Best Debut Artist. His second album, Here I Am, was recorded at the legendary Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas.
Paul Thorn all but stole the show from B.B. King at King Biscuit in 2010. He returns this year for his ninth consecutive appearance. His 2018 album, Don’t Let The Devil Ride, debuted in the Billboard Top 100 the first week of release.
For those searching for Chicago blues, there’s Jimmy Burns, Billy Branch, Mary Laine, D.R. Diamond & Birthright Blues Project, and The Lindsey Alexander Band. Raw Texas guitar has its place as well with Anson Funderburgh and Kirk Fletcher. Memphis sounds have a strong presence as well with Reba Russell, Wampus Cats and The Mighty Souls Brass Band.