Down in Mississippi, things are heating up for the annual Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival, held since 1988. One of the state's best blues festivals - in a region chock-full of 'em - this year's event serves as the centerpiece for a week's worth of music in downtown Clarksdale, located just 70 miles south of Memphis.
Earlier this week, filming began on Native Sons, a blues concert series similar in scope to the Blues Diva documentary which aired on public television last year. Local heroes Big Jack Johnson, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards, and Sam Carr are scheduled to perform nightly at Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club, alongside hill-country talent Kenny Brown, Alabama bluesman Willie King, St. Louis émigré Big George Brock, and chitlin' circuit superstar Bobby Rush. If tickets are still available for Thursday's taping, you might want to head down to Clarksdale a day early.
The festival itself kicks off at 4:30 on Friday afternoon, with performances by the Delta Blues Museum students and the Marshall Drew Blues Band. Blues mamas Barbara Looney, Geneva Red, and the indomitable Shirley Brown will serenade the setting sun, wrapping up the festival's main stage - located right next to the Delta Blues Museum - in time for plenty of jukin' on Friday night.
Don't party too hard. You'll want to wake up in plenty of time to catch the acoustic acts playing inside Clarksdale Station Saturday morning. You might want to grab an extra cup of coffee and time your arrival with folk artist/guitarist Pat Thomas, scheduled to play at 10:30 a.m. Son of the late great Leland musician James "Son" Thomas, Pat's concerts are unpredictable but often ragged and oh-so-right. Other picks for the acoustic stage on Saturday include Memphis fave Robert Belfour and Senatobia fife-and-drum group Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Band, which will lead a procession to the main stage at 1:30 p.m.
Saturday afternoon, you'll have some tough decisions to make: Jackson discovery Louis "Gearshifter" Youngblood, playing at 1:15 p.m. on a second acoustic stage on Delta Avenue, against Earnest "Guitar" Roy on the main stage at 2 p.m. At 4:30 p.m., one-man band Terry "Harmonica" Bean goes head-to-head with the Kenny Brown Band, while at 5:15 p.m. Super Chikan is playing against Clarksdale native Wesley Jefferson. Luckily, both stages are within a stone's throw of each other, with plenty of stores for sidewalk browsing in between. Once the sun sets, however, you'll want to stake out a prime spot in front of the main stage for harmonica great and current Clarksdale resident Charlie Musselwhite, performing at 9 p.m.
"We want to keep the festival free," says Melville Tillis, co-chairman of the all-volunteer Sunflower River Blues Association. "It's grown so much. I'd say we're the number-two festival in the region, next to the King Biscuit," he says, referring to another event, held every October in nearby Helena, Arkansas.
For the 77-year-old former schoolteacher, basketball coach, musician, and club owner, the Sunflower River festival is a way to stay close to the blues. "I started out playing trumpet in eighth grade in a group called the Tophatters," Tillis recalls. "Ike Turner played piano with us. If it marched down Issaquena Street, we played in it!"
Another septuagenarian, Big George Brock, will be playing in Clarksdale this weekend. Although the Missouri transplant isn't performing at the festival, he will be playing at several stages around town, including the Ground Zero Blues Club on Saturday and the mini-blues fest held at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art on Sunday. He's also promoting the release of Club Caravan, the inaugural disc on Cat Head's musical imprint, recorded at Jimbo Mathus' Delta Recording Studio in Clarksdale.
"Clarksdale's where I came from, so the atmosphere made me feel at home," Brock says, explaining that he left the Delta in 1949 to live in St. Louis with an older brother.
Other not-to-miss events in Clarksdale this weekend: educational programs at the Delta Blues Museum; juke-joint concerts at Sarah's Kitchen, Red's Lounge, the Delta Blues Room, and the Hopson Commissary at the Shack Up Inn; book signings and lectures at Cat Head; and Sunday blues brunches at both Ground Zero and the Delta Eye.