You Take the Jam, I'll Take Clarksdale

www.al.com
August 13, 2008

I am far from dazzled by the lineup announced so far for this year's Big Spring Jam, but promoters don't need me there to turn a buck. If there's good weather, the Jam's bound to draw huge crowds.

Plus, the event is geared toward folks younger than me, promoters said earlier this week. They are spending more money on acts and getting great response on their bookings, they said. Rock on.

But having attended the 21st annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, Miss., I doubt any Jam could top last Saturday's day-long schedule that included blues legends Jimbo Mathus, Willie King and the Liberators, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Jimmy Burns and Shemekia Copeland.

Of course, you have to love the blues to enjoy that. And you have to sit or stand in the unforgiving sun in August in the Mississippi Delta - although the weather this time was much better than some years - to experience it.

Jimbo and Super Chikan have played here before - Chikan at a previous Jam - and Willie, a colleague says, once taught the blues to schoolchildren in Decatur.

But getting these folks together in one day is powerful stuff to a fan like me. Sorry, Buckcherry and T-Pain. I'm glad you're coming for your fans. I'm sure you won't miss me.

Then there's the difference in atmosphere of the two music festivals.

Folks from everywhere come to Clarksdale, where legend says the blues was born when Robert Johnson cut a deal with the devil one midnight. Standing at U.S. 61 and 49, he learned to play a guitar as it had never been played before.

The festival is held a few miles away, next to the Delta Blues Museum, where you can get pertinent information about Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and other great Americans.

A colleague who made his first trip this year called it "the most unpretentious music festival I've ever seen," and indeed it is. You could chat with people like Chikan and Jimbo as they strolled through the crowd before and after shows - or you could dance with Willie when he did his guitar walk if you were a lady with a mind to.

The Jam is too big, too structured for such interaction. It is what it is, and that's fine. But it doesn't have the air of a post-Sunday services picnic as the Sunflower festival does - at least until the evening shows when 3,000 or so people make the venue semi-crowded at best.

Huntsville has concerts in the park with some of this flavor, but they don't run all day. And the audience isn't as diverse as the Clarksdale festival.

Maybe we're just too big or don't have the history or folks here. Maybe folks here want a different kind of music. The Jam promoters think so.

But for my money - and the Clarksdale concert is free; it gets by on beer sales and the passing of a big paper grocery bag for donations on Saturday night - I'll take the Sunflower festival every time.

And I will boldly predict that you won't hear anything at the Jam like Shemekia Copeland singing "I'm a wild, wild woman and you're a lucky, lucky man."

Unless, of course, the Jam folks quickly get on the phone to her manager to work something out.

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