Four words that are cause for much joy among fans of the blues as well as many business owners in the Helena-West Helena area:
King Biscuit is back.
And "one of the nation's foremost showcases of blues music" — as it's referred to in its online overview — is ready to party.
Like many other events, the festival shut down for two years due to covid.
"Helena-West Helena and surrounding Phillips County should be bustling this week in preparation for the King Biscuit Blues Festival ... ," according to an Oct. 4, 2020, Democrat-Gazette piece about the effects of the pandemic on the state's Delta region. "There is no cause for joy this year with the cancellation of the festival and only the pandemic blues hang over the area ... ."
There's plenty to be joyful about now. Mavis Staples, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Devon Allman Project will headline this year's festival comeback.
The festival takes place for three full days — Thursday-Saturday in historic downtown Helena on the banks of the Mississippi River — but kicks off with a "Warm Up Wednesday," featuring music by Blues Hall of Famer and Arkansas Black Hall of Famer Bobby Rush.
Per the others scheduled to appear on those stages, the musician and band names make the event brochure an entertainment source in itself: Austin "Walkin'" Cane. Australia "Honey Bee" Jones. Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith Band. The Blue Monday Blues Band. Spoonfed Blues featuring Mississippi Spoonman. Blind Mississippi Morris. Detroit Johnny. Six String Andrew.
"We're saying to everybody ... our theme is 'Welcome Home to Helena. The Biscuit Is Back,'" says Munnie Jordan, executive director of the festival.
There won't be any new event features greeting festivalgoers this year, she says. "We're doing what we normally do, which is action-filled."
SIX STAGES OF ACTION
Six stages will carry said action: The Sonny Boy Main Stage; where the headliners will be found; the Lockwood-Stackhouse stage, which will host the medium-size and acoustic bands; the CeDell Davis Stage, for up-and-coming blues musicians; the Bit-O-Blues Stage, featuring children under the age of 18; the Gospel Stage; and a Front Porch Stage.
Among the acts Jordan is looking forward to seeing is The Devon Allman Project, appearing on Saturday, and new to the festival. "I'm personally excited about hearing [Allman]," Jordan says.
"Mavis Staples is going to be wonderful, and she's never been here," she adds. "So we're really excited ... ." Originally set to headline the canceled 2020 festival, Staples will appear on Friday.
Regulars include The Fabulous Thunderbirds with Kim Wilson — "he's been around forever. Kentucky Headhunters are wonderful. They've been here a lot," Jordan continues.
"One thing about King Biscuit is people for some reason — and we like to think it's so typically authentic — but these people love to just come back year after year after year, the blues singers."
The Gospel Stage on Saturday night will feature the Phillips Community Choir; the Dixie Wonders; the A-1 Gospel Singers of Little Rock; Prevail of Arkansas; the Mellowtones of West Memphis and other acts.
Ancillary features of the festival are Saturday's Flour Power 5K Run and the Tour Da Delta Bike Ride. In addition to buying King Biscuit "merch," attendees will be able to buy raffle tickets for a chance to win a custom painted guitar and other prizes.
"And for those people that are really wanting to learn more about how did the blues get started," or how blues singers got their start, there's also Saturday's 10th annual Blues Symposium, taking place 10 a.m.-12:15 p.m. in the Malco Theater, 422 Cherry St. "It's a call-and-response panel," Jordan says.
How far does Jordan believe King Biscuit has gone in not only blues education, but raising up blues lovers in the state and in the region?
"I just think that we've taken the genre of blues and almost made it a culture ... from what it started and we just kept the blues alive, is what we say," Jordan explains. "That's why we praise ourselves. [The] Arkansas Arts Council gives us a Blues in the School grant. So we're able to take the blues into the schools [to ensure that] children understand the culture, the heritage of the Delta, where it all began. ... They sang [blues songs] in the fields years and years ago and these songs have just been passed down from generation to generation.
"And then we bring all those schoolchildren in our town and in Barton, Ark., down to the children's Bit O Blues stage on Friday so that they can see other children playing harmonica, playing the guitar, singing to inspire them to try to do it."
FANS OF ALL TYPES
The event is a unifier, attracting people of diverse ages, races and backgrounds.
"We have like, 12 different countries of people that come," Jordan says. "There's a group from Germany called American Music Tours, and they bring a group of Germans every year. And they're coming back this year, and they're so excited."
She recalls encountering a group in 2019 and asking them where they were from.
"Well, they were from Tokyo. I said, 'My word, did you come just for King Biscuit?' Yes, they did.
"Croatia, the Netherlands — they come back every year. It's kind of like a pilgrimage. ... The same people keep coming back every year and bringing their children and then their grandchildren [from] all across the [seas]. It's crazy."
Then they have the people who come and camp out in Tent City, right on the river; many of them have been coming since the festival's founding in 1986. "They elect a mayor and they just do their own little [thing]."
If online ticket sales (now closed) were any indication, these folks — and others — are on their way back this year. As of Sept. 22, sales were above what they were three years ago at the last festival. "We check it every day and [sales have] consistently stayed above what we did in 2019," Jordan says. They estimate that the event will attract 20,000-30,000 over its duration.
"The biggest year we ever had, of course was when B.B. King was here. ... That levy was just packed and jammed," Jordan says. "They had the fire department measure the levee and declare how many people could get in a square foot or square yard or whatever. And that year, I mean, they were packed. And we say around 10,000 can get ... right in front of the Main Stage. But that doesn't count all the other ... stages and all the people that just walk up and down [Cherry] street," taking advantage of the food and arts-and-crafts vendors along with the shops and boutiques selling their wares.
Buskers, or street musicians, will be set up at assigned locations on Cherry. "So it's just music all over — everywhere," Jordan says.
Festival proceeds go to the Sonny Boy Blues Society. The society offers aid for blues singers who can't afford things like health care or burials. The society also hosts a Battle of the Bands; the winner gets to be the first to play on the King Biscuit Main Stage and gets to go to the International Blues Competition awards. This year's featured winner: Fonky Donkey.
"And then we said 'King Biscuit had a baby, and we called it Delta Roots [Music Festival],'" Jordan adds. This festival, scheduled for each April, began in 2019 and returned this year. "And it's growing, too; doing great. It's more Americana music, we would say. It's not just one genre."
The first Delta Roots was a tribute to Conway Twitty. "He lived here in the area," Jordan continues. "And then the second one, which was this year, was a tribute to Levon Helm," who grew up in Turkey Scratch, about 20 minutes from Helena-West Helena.
Not surprisingly, King Biscuit owes its execution to many volunteers — 400 plus, she says. The blues society has only three hired employees. "Everybody else in this organization is a volunteer ... . They all work like crazy. And they work all year long."
This year's festival is a tribute to Bubba Sullivan, one the founders of King Biscuit Blues Festival and the president of the Sonny Boy Blues Society for some years. A tribute to him will begin at 3 p.m. Wednesday, with a Bubba Sullivan Memorial Jam, 7 p.m. "until."
Sullivan, Jordan says, "was just the wheel that kept the festival turning and going." He passed away in August 2021, at the age of 81. Wednesday's festivities will feature a program about him.
"A lot of the entertainers that loved him will be here on the stage to make testimonials to him."
King Biscuit Blues Festival
- ◼️ Featuring the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Mavis Staples, The Devon Allman Project, Bobby Rush
- Wednesday-Saturday, Downtown Historic Helena
- General admission tickets: $60 single day; $100 Thursday-Saturday
- Information: kingbiscuitfestival.com