Although last year’s Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival was actually rather depressing, with stage access cut off by a horrendous VIP compound, improvements had been promised this year, and fortunately, things were a lot better last night. Bobby Rush was on stage at the time I entered the festival grounds, and fans were able to set up their lawn chairs and blankets and enjoy the music directly in front of the stage. There were still some minor annoyances, like the whole festival grounds being fenced off (which doesn’t happen during Juke Joint Fest, and which I cannot see the point of since there is no admission charge), and people coming from Ground Zero are still required to walk the long way around to Third Street to get into the festival. But altogether, the experience was far more pleasant and fun, and it seems that the Sunflower River Festival is on the right path. Around the corner at the Wade Walton Stage, a southern soul DJ was having his own miniature blues festival, spinning for the few patrons of the rib shack next door.
The Saturday of Juke Joint Festival is arguably Clarksdale’s biggest day of the year, but if you get there early enough and don’t mind a walk, parking is not that big a deal. I parked around the corner from Red’s Juke Joint, and walking past the Ground Zero club I ran into members of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock jazz band who were unloading their equipment for a performance at the club. Arts, crafts, food, games and music are the order of the day at Juke Joint Fest, and unlike Thursday night, which had been chilly, the weather on Saturday was warm and full of sunshine.
When I walked into Ground Zero Blues Club Friday afternoon, a young singer-songwriter named Jacqueline Nassar was on stage performing to a packed house. Her solo material was not particularly blues-oriented, but it was still well-conceived, melodic and tuneful. Besides her solo work, Nassar also fronts the Jax Nassar Blues Band, which performed several times during the festival.
Ground Zero Blues Club in some ways was the beginning of modern Clarksdale- the Clarksdale that has become a tourist destination instead of a dreary, dying Delta town. Who could have imagined that Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett’s modern reinvention of a classic juke joint would launch a civic renaissance, but that’s exactly what has happened. With its shimmering, brightly-colored lights, old posters, graffitied walls and comfort-food menu, Ground Zero is not to be missed, and worth the drive from Memphis even when there’s not a festival going on. Phillip Carter is a librarian at the Carnegie Library in Clarksdale when he’s not playing some of the best modern blues in the Delta. The hard part at Ground Zero is finding a table, but once I finally did, I sat enjoying my bacon cheeseburger and listening to Carter’s first-rate band, the Blues Underground. After an intermission, they brought a lot of visiting musicians up out of the crowd, as so many were in town for Juke Joint Festival.
Crankshaft is a one-man blues band that has a somewhat alternative rock approach to the blues. Here he was performing in the parking lot beside Ground Zero during Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, April 14, 2012
After the earlier majorette jamboree in Memphis, I drove down to Tunica for the Rosa Fort Jamboree, but that one proved to be quite a disappointment. If drumlines are becoming rarer at Memphis jamborees, they are non-existent at Mississippi ones. After an hour and a half or so, I decided to leave and drive down to Clarksdale to the legendary Ground Zero Blues Club. They were having a Pre-Valentine’s Day Bash with Ricky “Soul Man” Burton and the Basic Soul Band, so there was a fairly substantial cover charge, and, once inside, I found the place packed to the rafters. The TV’s were flashing the breaking news about Whitney Houston’s death as I looked in vain for a table. Finally, I was directed to a table where a French family was sitting, and I was able to sit down and order food. The band and vocalists were quite good, and the audience included a lot of radio personalities from Helena’s Delta Force III and Clarksdale’s WROX.