Blues straight from the hills
A veteran of the genre, Mississippi-born Robert Belfour hums and strums at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.
Robert Belfour Photo: Deskalibrada Mental
Robert Belfour’s forthcoming gig at the Barby Club on August 23 is a rare
opportunity to catch one of the veteran master bluesmen do his thing on stage
Now 71, Mississippi-born Belfour comes from near the cradle of the
blues, from where it all started.
However, although he hails from the
Deep South, Belfour was born and brought up near Holly Springs, Mississippi, the
hill area in the northern part of the state. This neck of the woods has a
distinctly different culture and musical vibe from the better known Delta
region, and Belfour considers himself a proponent of what he calls “Mississippi
hill country music.”
Belfour was surrounded by the blues from the word go
and got an early start to his musical education from his father, Grant Belfour,
who played a mean blues guitar. Other local artists had a lasting effect on
young Belfour’s musical evolution, including the likes of Otha Turner and R.
Burnside and particularly Junior Kimbrough.
Belfour Sr. died
when Robert was 13, and he had go out to work to help support his mother’s
efforts to keep the wolves at bay.
Meanwhile, the youngster used what
little spare time he had to hone his instrumental and vocal skills. Over the
years he developed a distinctive rhythmic, riffy playing style, with great
attention to detail and complex fingerwork, while his powerful vocals led to
some calling him “Wolfman”.
Belfour is the genuine article. He not only
learned his craft from homespun local musicians who played the blues purely for
the love of it, but he also accumulated plenty of requisite tough real life
experiences. He married at the age of 19 and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and
worked in construction for 35 years.
He only started considering music as
a serious occupation around 30 years ago when he began playing at various joints
on downtown Memphis’s Beale Street.
His big break came in 1994 when he
was recorded by blues researcher and ethnomusicologist Dr. David Evans. Eight of
the numbers Evans captured eventually found their way onto a compilation put out
by German label Hot Fox called The Spirit Lives On: Deep South Country Blues and
Spirituals in the 1990s. This led to a recording deal with Fat Possum Records
and the release in 2000 of Belfour’s first album as leader, What’s Wrong with
You. That was followed three years later by Pushin’ My Luck.
recordings helped to get Belfour’s name out. He initially attracted the
attention of blues lovers in Germany and began touring there regularly. The word
also got around to other parts of Europe and, paradoxically, he became a feature
of the European blues circuit before Americans outside Memphis cottoned on to
the fact that there was a seasoned bluesman worth listening to.
acknowledging the influences around him when he growing up, Belfour prides
himself on the fact that he found his own way through the mysteries of the art
form. In an interview he gave to blues enthusiast Rick Webb in 2007, Belfour
refuted the claim that Junior Kimbrough had taught him to play. “Once I was
being interviewed they asked me: ‘You knew Jr. Kimbrough didn’t you?’ and I’m
like ‘Yeah, I knew Jr.
Kimbrough, I see him some time, every so often,’”
“They said, ‘He learnt you how to play, didn’t he?’ I say
‘No!’ They were gonna give him that credit for learning me how to play, but I
learned my own self by ear.”
Belfour says he got his blues ear in by
listening to records by some of the giants of the music like John Lee Hooker,
Muddy Waters and Lightning Hopkins. He also learned different guitar tunings,
including the “Spanish” open tuning variety, a popular option for slide guitar
There is also a gospel feel to some of Belfour’s work, which
attests to his early training as a choirboy in his local church.
opting for the secular blues, Belfour says he remains a believer. “Now I do
blues, but I don’t put my whole soul in the blues... I still believe in the man
upstairs...,” he told Webb.
Robert Belfour will perform at the Barby Club
in Tel Aviv on August 23 at 9:30 p.m. For tickets and more information: (03)
518-8123 and www.barby.co.il