February 15th was certainly a memorable afternoon for blues lovers in the Philadelphia area. Mississippi blues artists Robert Belfour, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, and Robert “Bilbo” Walker did a special two-hour Free-At-Noon, Mississippi Blues Project concert.
Listen here to the concert with Robert “Wolfman” Belfour.”
Listen here to the concert featuring Anthony “Big A” Sherrod with Robert “Bilbo” Walker.
The concert was made even more special by the fact thatr it was the first time any of them have played anywhere in this vicinity. Belfour opened with a solo set. His deep, earthy tone made his performance enthralling and compelling, a tone far more affecting than on his two fine albums. He has been playing since childhood in the Mississippi hill country around Red Banks, MS, where he picked up his father’s guitar and learned to play, but when his father died when Robert was just 13, the burden of supporting the family fell largely on him. From farming, he went into construction work in Memphis, playing on the side, when there was time.
Belfour was discovered by “blues professor” Dr. David Evans who included him on the anthology “The Spirit Lives On – Deep South Country Blues And Spirituals” in 1994 for a German label, Hit Fox Records. This is a hard CD to find these days, though his two later albums for the Fat Possum label in Mississippi are in print (and in fact were sold at this concert). Belfour often plays chord-melody accompaniment, that is, plays the melody lines along with harmonizing chords all at once.
Belfour played some of his originals such as “Pushin’ My Luck” and some hill country favorites like “Old Black Mattie,” as well as the ever-popular “Catfish Blues” and a couple of John Lee Hooker songs, including “Boogie Chillen,” done his own distinct way. At 74 he remains a passionate blues communicator. His last album came out a decade ago, and he wants to do a new one, if the deal is right.
Robert Belfour presented an imposing presence while seated in a chair, but Robert “Bilbo” Walker and Anthony “Big A” Sherrod covered the real estate on stage with fancy footwork as they split a set together. Sherrod, 29, who is Walker’s son-in-law, started on guitar with Walker on bass, with energetic versions of some blues favorites such as “Crosscut Saw” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” as well as the title song for the film “We Juke Up In Here” (which he wrote) that came out last year. Sherrod appeared in that movie, and in two other films about Mississippi blues, but so far, for some reason, hasn’t put out a debut album. Hopefully that will happen soon. After four songs, they switched instruments and “Bilbo” Walker played guitar and sang lead offering his own, highly personalized interpretations of some blues standards such as “It Hurts Me Too” and “Cut You Loose.” Walker never does a note-for-note or word-for-word cover of any song, and offers blistering, rough-hewn renditions of well-traveled songs that have become a bit tired in just about anyone else’s hands at this point.
Walker looks younger than his 76 years (a wig helps him in that regard as well), and he has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve, including an uncanny ability to really play his guitar while it looks like he is just holding it by the neck with one hand. He performed Chuck Berry’s “Johnnie B. Goode” (he does it as “Robert B. Goode”) doing Berry’s famous duck walk. Walker says that he, unlike Berry, can do the duck walk backwards as well.
His set included the Kitty Wells country hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” a song rarely done by men, let alone blues players, because it is usually a woman’s song from a woman’s point of view (and an answer song to “The Wild Side Of Life” by Hank Thompson). Walker loves country music, and in fact, the Mississippi native lives in Bakersfield, CA, which is Merle Haggard country, and an area with some major history and activity in country music.
After two hours the audience seemed happy to stay for more, following their bracing closer “Hip Shakin’ Mama.” Walker says he usually plays for over two hours and often over three, but the artists had a plane to catch – which they missed!
Giving credit where it is due: to The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and The Philadelphia Music Project, for the funding without which this show would not have happened, and to Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art in Clarksdale MS for logistical and every other kind of support, and to photographer Mike Lynch in Philadelphia whose pictures you see here.