Saturday was electric in the Delta, as Saturdays normally are, but the night of April 28th was anything but usual in the river-side region of Mississippi that undeniably birthed almost every aspect of modern music. That night, magic was in the air.
The Blessissippi Crossroads Concert, an event that had been in planning for months, was finally upon the town, and Ground Zero Blues Club became the site of one of the most exciting concert events in recent memory. Dozens of highly talented musicians, locally, regionally, and internationally famous, graced the stage for a night of unforgettable music. The project was spearheaded by an incredible philanthropic organization, Explore, which to date, has awarded over $15 million to more than 100 non-profit organizations worldwide. This time, Explore set it’s sights on bringing awareness and much-needed funding to a region that has continued to be one of the poorest in the country. Bring it they did. A sold out house stormed Ground Zero, as hundreds of fans came from around the world to be a part of Blessissippi’s kick off event.
Ground Zero Blues Club is perhaps the most well known live music venue in the area. An old cotton building in a past life, the ancient brick structure at Ø Blues Alley in the heart of downtown is now a place that celebrates the region’s long history of music by continuing to provide delta musicians a reliable venue to play, and giving the tens of thousands who visit every year a place to make their mark, letting the world know they were there. And they have made countless marks: signing names on chairs, the stage, the bar, on guitars, and even the ceiling — impressive considering it’s twenty foot height. The countless signatures, mismatched chairs, blues music stickers, guitars, and posters of past concerts plastered to everything make Ground Zero a living work of art — the aesthetic visualization of the many visitor’s feelings when they call the delta a temporary home, with a soundtrack that’s second to none.
Crews worked tirelessly to build camera perches all around the room, even screwed to the ceiling, to film every second, every angle of the powerful showcase. People sucked down beers, ate appetizers, and waited with baited breath and energy in their souls. Morgan Freeman came sauntering in through the side door, wearing a beret & looking like a classy rendition of a movie star who felt right at home with a room full of his blues-loving friends.
Two hours before, Stacy Mitchhart directed a last-minute rehearsal of the temporary band while long-time Rolling Stones alumni Bobby Keys and Sugar Blue embraced after a presumably long absence. Acclaimed keyboardist Bill Payne of Little Feat, who had stood awestruck in Muddy Waters’ old room at the historic Riverside Hotel the night before, played a brief piano solo to warm up. Mitchhart hit the instantly-identifiable opening lick to “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” and suddenly the rehearsal was screaming. Keys, the man who had played the celebrated saxophone solo for “Knockin'” (and everything else Rolling Stones) on the legendary Sticky Fingers album, as well as essentially all Stones tours, stood on the stage, mouthing Mick’s words and reprising his sax-man role for a cover song that was perhaps the closest thing to the Stones without having Keef in the room. The music was shaping up to sound fierce when the proverbial curtains came up.
When the the ceremony began, Event Coordinator Jerry Cope took the stage to welcome all manner of esteemed guests. Despite the magnitude of Blessissippi and all it entailed — an event he had moved to the delta for six months to oversee — the perpetually smiling supervisor still made time to gracefully and carefully ensure everyone from the artists to the press were well taken care of. Cope brought out GZBC co-owners Morgan Freeman & Bill Luckett to accept a specially-made Gibson guitar (with Ground Zero’s logo emblazoned on it’s body) from Nina Miller of the Gibson Foundation.
A movie rolled featuring renown philanthropist Charlie Annenberg, the driven force behind Blessissippi & leader of Explore, and James “Super Chikan” Johnson discussing the delta and announcing Explore’s donation of a jaw-dropping $250,000 to Delta State University to further music education in the area.
T-Model Ford, the 90+ year old bluesman, played a set with accompaniment by Bill Abel, followed by the great Robert Belfour, looking powerful in a three piece suit while he sang “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and commanding the room.
“SHOOT THAT THANG” hollered Super Chikan as he scared up a Chuck Berry-esque chord on a guitar he made himself out of a Craftsman Toolbox and a broomstick. Chikan’s wild stage antics could rise people from the grave to stomp their feet and holler til their lungs hurt, and the famous performer danced and chicken squawked his way into a highly memorable performance.
Mitchhart kicked off the all-star band with a couple of Rolling Stones numbers in honor of the esteemed musical guests on the stage, and Ground Zero exploded with music. Fans jumped up and down, dancing in the aisles. American Blues Scene’s Account Executive found herself surrounded by Robert Belfour and T-Model Ford at her front-row seat as Sugar Blue, a man who makes incredible music with a humble harmonica, blasted a rockin’ tune. Celebrated singer Maria Muldaur graced the stage, describing herself something of a preacher in disguise before calling forth Baptist reverend-style energy and belting powerful blues-steeped gospel.
As the night continued at breakneck pace, the energy level remained high. Backstage, the artists laughed, took pictures, and networked; enjoying the time spent among so much great talent. Meanwhile, the stage was always rockin’. Albert Bashor, vocalist Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry and his daughter Sharo Perry, Alphonso Sanders, King Edward, Mickey Rogers, Jeremy Jemmot, Rick Lewis, drummer Jimmi Mayes, Mark Yacavone, Zack Hood, Big T, Big A, Big Dave, Mark “Muleman” Massey, harpist Stan Street, Watermelon Slim, Heather Cross and Heavy Suga, Kingfish, All Night Long Band, Abdul Rasheed, Lightnin’ Malcolm, Andy Frasco, La La Craig, Rachel Coba, Daddy Rich, and Josh “Razorblade” Stewart popped on and off of the stage, each lighting the faces of the crowd and playing with incredible talent, vigor, and energy.
The Blessissippi Crossroads Concert featured more incredible music packed into one night than most people get in months, and all to benefit one of the greatest causes: continuing the traditions of music in the place where modern music began, and providing funds to aid teaching young minds in an area that, perhaps, needs it more than anywhere in the country. Blues fans and lovers everywhere can be proud and honored that such attention, care, and reverence is being poured upon the backbone of the blues in the delta, a cotton & musically rich stretch of land with endless opportunities to Explore.
Lynn Orman Weiss was good enough to take some incredible photos of the event for us: