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 370 (photo credit: Deskalibrada Mental)
Robert Belfour 370
(photo credit: 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 here.
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. L.
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.
The 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.
While 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,’” said Belfour.
“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 playing.
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.
Despite 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