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REVIEW: Memphis Blues Masters, Queen Ann Hines Deliver Fun Concert, Powerful Vocals at KASU’s Bluesday Tuesday in Newport

NEWPORT — KASU’s Bluesday Tuesday returned May 15 to the new Front Street Park across from the Missouri-Pacific Depot with a boogie-ready blues and R&B concert featuring outstanding Memphis talent and the most stirring and powerful vocals I’ve seen in years.

The Memphis Blues Masters featuring Queen Ann Hines entertained more than 120 people starting in the early evening. Instead of featuring local acts, Bluesday Tuesday showcases musicians from Memphis and central Arkansas, explained KASU 91.9 FM station manager Mike Doyle.

“We’ve always sought variety,” he said. “Our audiences might not get over there to hear them, so we bring the acts to them.”

The weather for Bluesday Tuesday was great, with temps in the mid 80s. Front Street Park features a grassy open space that invites people to sprawl about and enjoy the music. A roof reminiscent of a B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber shields the Terry Scoggins Memorial Stage, while a clock tower punctuates the skyline behind it.

The Memphis Blues Masters featuring Queen Ann Hines

The Memphis Blues Masters featuring Queen Ann Hines entertain Newport. Bluesday Tuesday brings a variety of regional acts to Northeast Arkansas. (photo by Sandra L. Combs)

It was the second trip to Newport for Memphis Blues Masters bassist Johnny Causley. He estimated he’s played more than 20 times in Arkansas as a member of several bands. He founded the Memphis Blues Masters in 2000.

“I was playing with someone else (previously),” Causley explained. “Then Joe Thomas put me in a gig and I got my own band together for it. The members of the Memphis Blues Masters are professionals; they’ve played with everybody: Albert King, J. Blackfoot, Little Milton. (Drummer Calvin King) played with the Rev. Al Green’s little sister.”

Guitarist Thomas Bingham, who previously played with Blackfoot and Solomon Burke, has been with the Memphis Blues Masters about four years, he said. He noted that the band plays more than just the blues.

“We pick from the repertoire of what we have,” Bingham said. “We try to feel out the audience and the venue.”

On this evening, the Memphis Blues Masters showed off a diverse songbook, covering R&B and pop standards from Freddy King’s “Hideaway” to Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog,” Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” and Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back the Hands of Time.”

Video by Larz Roberts
KASU’s Doyle previously brought Hines and the Memphis Blues Masters to Dyess, Arkansas, for the 2017 Johnny Cash Heritage Festival. That experience made it easier to convince the band to come back to Arkansas, Queen Ann Hines told the audience Tuesday.

Hines says grew up singing in church. “Everything I got is a blessing from God,” Hines said. A cousin of Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas (who had the 1961 hit “Gee Whiz”), Hines knew she her voice was something special at the age of 5 when her mom praised her rendition of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By.” In fourth grade, she sang George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from the “Porgy and Bess” Broadway musical for her elementary school. She continued singing in talent shows in high school before joining the soul band Spirit With Pizzazz, with which she toured Germany.

When she returned stateside, Hines met Bingham while playing with J. Blackfoot, who also worked with Causley following the breakup of The Soul Children in 1978. Hines’ song “Tear Jerker,” which she sang with Blackfoot, reached No. 28 on the R&B charts in 1987. Hines released her debut album, “Man Hunt,” in 1993.

They toured Italy and she took up residence in Pabullo, outside of Bologna, for about three years. There she earned the “Queen” designation and started a music-booking business, Queen Ann European Tours. (She booked Warwick and Aretha Franklin to sing for the Pope at the Vatican.)

Hines returned to Memphis in 2003 to sing with Blackfoot until his death. She also sang with such notable stars as B.B. King, James Brown, Bobby Bland, Bobby Rush, Solomon Burke, Little Milton, Denise LaSalle, Marvin Sease, Lynn White, Johnnie Taylor and Three 6 Mafia. In 2012, she started singing at Beale Street’s Blues Hall, where audiences can still catch her performances most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

When the band played “Train,” the first song off their eponymous CD, Hines led the crowd in pulling on an imaginary whistle every time the band played the chorus, “Choo-Choo, Choo-Choo, Choo-Choo”:

Video by Larz Roberts
Someone must have contacted the railroad as the only train of the evening pulled past the depot during the next cut, “Still Called the Blues,” prompting Queen Ann to pull her imaginary whistle yet again.

Fittingly for a memorial park, Hines dedicated “Misty Blue” to military personnel. The vibrato in her voice will nearly move you to tears. She stepped away from the microphone for a couple of verses, and her voice carried across the lawn without any amplification. The band muted its sound appropriately but turned up once again when she returned to the microphone.

As the band covered the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” some of the crowd moved to the concrete to start scootin’; others just stood from their seats to shake their tailfeathers. Partially through the song, the band eased into “Just My Imagination” and “My Girl” before circling back to finish “I’ll Take You There.”

Shimmy-Shimmy Cocoa Pop

Shimmy-Shimmy Cocoa Pop works the crowd to sell CDs. The hype man primarily danced. (photo by Sandra L. Combs)

A small child – apparently an enthusiastic blues fan – attempted to rush the stage during The Temptations medley, only to be swept into the arms of a doting grandmother.

“Let her come up if she wants!” Queen Ann implored.

The child escaped and Shimmy-Shimmy Cocoa Pop – the local unofficial welcome committee and dancing hype-man – escorted her to the stage, careful to keep her out of the cords crisscrossing the area. Unwilling to provide another given name, Shimmy-Shimmy Cocoa Pop also sells merchandise throughout the crowd.

“Every band needs a dancer like Shimmy-Shimmy Cocoa Pop,” Doyle said.

As the Memphis Blues Masters started covering Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” the child moved down to a dirt pit in front of the stage before being escorted back to Grandma. The band transitioned into Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” and “Chain Gang,” then Bingham worked his Epiphone B.B. King guitar into a smooth solo before the band finished “Stand By Me” in three-part harmony.

Bingham played a mean harmonica during a cover of Slim Harpo’s “Baby, Scratch My Back,” and his guitar playing excelled whether using a slide on Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” or picking the infamous whistle-melody from Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay.” He also sang, as did Dotson – who played keys with Albert King – while covering K.C. & the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes.”

But there’s no question whose vocals demanded the crowd’s devoted attention.

During a cover of Etta James’ “At Last,” Queen Ann Hines’ voice cut through the overcast evening like a train whistle through the night. Nearly every vocal run was spot-on, and she finished stronger than ever, moving to the front of the stage without a mic and warbling into the night with a voice easily heard more than a block away without amplification. I haven’t heard such robust yet controlled vocals since listening to Sarah Jordan, queen of the Knoxville blues, back in the early 2000s.

Queen Ann Hines

Queen Ann Hines did not need the microphone to be heard all over the park. She said she hopes to return to Newport in the future. (photo by Sandra L. Combs)

The Blues Masters did, in fact, match their setlist to the crowd on hand. If the nod to Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” during a cover of James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” didn’t show she knows her audience, Hines proved it again with a sanitized cover of Chuck Willis’ “Stoop Down Baby (Let Your Daddy See)” for the family-filled crowd. Mid-song, the band switched into Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ “The Twist,” which the crowd likely knew better from Chubby Checkers’ 1960 hit version.

No matter your age, race or background, everyone knows how to twist. Children got up and danced in front of the stage, oblivious to any social constricts. The crowd was clearly pleased, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one there who wished the songs in the second set were longer.

Although no vendors provided refreshments on this night, the crowd increased in size, maybe up to 150 – a decent blues crowd by Arkansas standards, but not exactly big enough for the venue, which could easily hold 500 or more. Doyle said the crowd was a little bigger than the previous show in April, and he expects the crowds to increase as the series continues through the summer.

“We were competing with high school graduations, and a lot of people are still working on the farm,” he said. “Everyone we’ve had has been bigger than the typical Country Cub crowd.”

The revised series originally began as Blue Monday in Jonesboro, with additional shows in Paragould and an eight-year run in Newport from 2006-2014. Following a four-year hiatus, North Little Rock-based Josh Parks Band kicked off the revised series in April with a blues-rock show. Newport’s Arkansas Steel Associates underwrites the KASU Bluesday Tuesday series, scheduled for the third Tuesday of every month through September.

Future Newport Bluesday Tuesday events tentatively include:

  • Charlotte Taylor and Gypsy Rain on June 19
  • The Billy Jones Band on July 17
  • Jubilation Jazz on Aug. 21
  • Blues Boy Jag and the Juke Joint Zombies on Sept. 18

Starting in June, vendors will provide concessions at Front Street Park. If bad weather threatens, the series will move to Frankie’s Place at 306 Front St.

Doyle estimated that KASU has promoted hundreds of concerts in the region in the last 20 years or so.

“We do it because we believe live performances are important,” Doyle said. “We like (the shows) to be free, and we enjoy meeting our listeners.”

He noted bands seldom gig on the nightclub scene on Tuesday nights. So Bluesday Tuesday provides a chance for them to make money, meet a new audience and sell merchandise. Most everyone enjoys it.

“It was my first time visiting Newport,” Hines said, agreeing with the host. “I really enjoyed it; it was peaceful for me … it was just soothing. I really felt at home. I loved when the baby wanted to come up on stage because I love kids. I hope they have me back. Hopefully next time, we’ll come back to a bigger crowd.”