Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival – (Clarksdale, MS)
The Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival has evolved from a righteous celebration of roots and local heritage into an eclectic (but no less righteous) proclamation both of regional pride and forward-looking adventurousness. Even the stodgiest purists who attend are now forced to encounter — and maybe even learn to respect, if not embrace — sounds and ideas they might otherwise avoid.
Friday began with the Eddie Lee Coleman Band and the Maximum Blues Band, both of whom put forth amiable but unremarkable variations on well-known shuffle-blues and soul-blues themes. Next came former Squirrel Nut Zippers frontman Jimbo Mathus and his gonzo-roots aggregation Knockdown South, a freewheeling crew owing as much to mid-’70s Memphis proto-punk/psychedelia garage blues as to Sun Records or Delta jukes. Mathus and the boys played it relatively straight in Clarksdale, but the die was cast: This was not going to be a weekend of your grandfather’s (or your favorite moldy-fig critic’s) blues.
Duwayne Burnside, the late R.L. Burnside’s guitar-slinging son, followed Mathus. He and his Mississippi Mafia ignited a searing, rocked-out set that grafted Burnside Sr.’s famous modal “trance-blues” drone onto a thunderous funk/roadhouse backing, propelled by Cedric Burnside on drums and goosed by Duwayne’s fire-on-the-fretboard lead work.
Just as it seemed the Lords of Overboogie had taken control, Benny Latimore arrived to soothe the savage beast with his dusky baritone and jazz-tinged electric keyboard stylings. Few contemporary artists can meld macho and meditativeness with as much panache as this aging but still robust soul man. When he segued into his trademark anthem of romantic penitence and forgiveness, 1974’s “Let’s Straighten It Out”, the crowd erupted into a shout that sounded like a cross between sanctified ecstasy and orgasmic abandon.
Saturday afternoon, both James “Duck” Holmes and T-Model Ford held forth in Delta Avenue Park a few blocks from the mainstage. Ford’s primal, almost atavistic technique, barbed-wire tone, and relentless drive transformed everything he touched — from rough-hewn originals to standards such as “Hoochie Coochie Man” — into something approximating shamanistic ritual.
Several other acts on Saturday — the venerable Eddie Cusic, the team of guitarist Big T and harpist Artheice “Gas Man” Jones, and Kenny Brown (all indoors at the Clarksdale railroad depot), along with harpists Big George Brock and Terry “Harmonica” Bean (on the mainstage) — invoked Mississippi roots with as much devotion as, if less intensity than, T-Model. James “Super Chikan” Johnson turned in a set that was mercifully light on the cock-a-doodle-doo shtick and heavy on straight-ahead good-time juke-joint jubilation.
The evening culminated in a typically cosmic-bound performance by the North Mississippi Allstars. They’ve become darlings on the jam-band circuit, and this night’s performance featured plenty of neo-Cipollina explorations from guitarist Luther Dickinson. Their songs included several tributes to North Mississippi blues elders such as Junior Kimbrough and the late fife master Otha Turner, as well as a Jimi Hendrix cover (“Hear My Train A-Comin'”) and a Dead-like romp on “Love Light” featuring Duwayne Burnside, who sounded much more controlled and old-school with them than he had with his own band. Their classiest moment, though, was “Hey, Bo Diddley”, on which they stepped back to feature Turner’s old group, the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, now fronted by Otha’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas.
At 16, Sharde has honed a fife technique that transcends the instrument’s tonal and scalar limitations; her rhythmic ideas are complex, her tone resonant and sure. Her voice is richly textured and lightened with an irresistible little-girl buoyancy. As if that weren’t enough, she’s developing into an impressive conguera — her polyrhythmic hand-drum patterns on both traditional material and the aforementioned “Bo Diddley” were galvanizing.
Borrowing some licks from hip-hop emcees, Sharde thrust her fife at the crowd and dared them not to get up and respond, introducing herself saucily as “the one and only Sharde” and demanding props for both her grandfather (“C’mon! Make some noise for Otha Turner, y’all!”) and herself (“Now make some noise for Sharde!”). Although she seldom departed from the basic contours of the musical tradition whose preservation she has taken as her mission, in her hands that tradition became a living, breathing, and utterly contemporary musical melange. Sharde Thomas rocks.