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Ozarks Rambles

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by Kenny Knauer

Feeling the need for some Memphis blues or a quick trip to New Orleans for some down-home French Quarter blues? Book no planes no one- or two-day drive times to dread reserve now for next year's 11th annual Eureka Springs Blues Festival, June 3-6.

This past weekend was the 10th annual festival, ably promoted and directed by Sally Riker and her crew of stalwart staffers and volunteers, who seemed remarkably able to handle everything in stride, from crowds to heat and humidity

A brief weekend festival visit indicates how even the experts disagree about solving the "traffic snarl blues" endemic to downtown Eureka Springs. The long-running discussion about banning most vehicular traffic from the narrow and steep streets of downtown comes vividly to mind when one waits four or five minutes to ford a stream of hot automobiles backed up to the edges of town.

There is recent exciting local news about a proposed solution to diffuse the daytime and early evening traffic jams. To replace and relieve the classic (and eye-catching) trio of trolleys that funnel folks from their motel/hotel parking lots to the entertainment, dining and shopping spots, the city has applied for a federal grant to fund a fleet of electric trolleys. Are you listening, Branson?

This will significantly reduce exhaust pollution and curbside temperatures, providing more capacity for passengers to leave their vehicles at their lodgings and take the trolley, or later in the evening, the Blues Bus. The trolley shuttles stop running at 6 p.m. on non-festival days, and 8 p.m. on festival event days.

Filling in after the shows, and to shuttle folks back and forth later in the evening, the festival has a brightly colored Blues Bus, which hauls happy crowds to their destinations until 2 a.m.

Although the Folk Festival is the senior festival in Eureka, the estimated 22,000 blues fan(atics) gathered over the four-day weekend vindicates the belief that a festival occurring the week after the Memorial Day weekend can be very successful.

Riker explained how the weekend after the big holiday was selected. "There was a significant drop in rooms sold and restaurant and gallery revenues after the major crowds of Memorial Day weekend," she said. "The town and the merchants wanted to bring up sales-tax proceeds on the following weekend."

There was an incredible diversity of blues performers and groups at this festival. Starting with the hard-edged urban blues of Houston a la Hadden Sayers, then on to the Reba Russell Band, featuring the superb blues stylist Reba Russell, "The Memphis Songbird"; her husband Wayne, on bass; Robert Nighthawk III, on harp/keyboards; James Cunningham (10 years with the band); and guitar whiz Mojo Schiecke, a 1995 addition.

According to Riker, it is never too early to subscribe to the newsletter for next year's event, or to book your favorite bed and breakfast or classic hotel. Almost all of the larger hotels and motels and B & B's were full up (with a two-night minimum stay) months in advance. In fact, many veteran festival fans book their next year's rooms before they leave town each year.

A complete guide of annual and current events, lists of available accommodations, restaurants and the like, can be requested from the Chamber of Commerce, at "Visitor's Guide," PO Box 551, Eureka Springs, Ark. 72632; or just dial 501-252-9737 for this mailing.

The addresses for ticket information, artist ticket packages and the newsletter are all the same: Eureka Springs Blues Festival Inc., PO Box 363, Eureka Springs, Ark. 72632.

Be sure to include your name, return address and Zip code for festival newsletter purposes. The telephone number for the festival is 501-253-5366. Riker and crew (and the chamber) recommend getting your preferred room reservations as early as Thanksgiving for next year's festival, or at least by Christmas.

On Thursday evenings, there is a "SuperJam" concert at the wonderfully restored Civic Auditorium featuring exciting combinations of artists and groups, just to whet the appetite of the folks with four-day passes.

This year's jam featured superb blues artists Jimmy Thackery, recently in Springfield; Hadden Sayers, also Springfield-bound; Earl Cate, of the Cate Brothers; and Tab Benoit, who also blistered the audience with Joe Louis Walker and Jimmy Thackery on Friday in a wonderful acoustic concert at the Civic.

Another Thursday night feature at the Civic is the "Preview Show," which this year featured Reba Russell and Chico Banks.

The preferred route to Eureka Springs, to avoid the Highway 65 traffic and a plethora of giant double and triple billboards sprouting on denuded hillsides, is Highway 160 west to Aurora, south on 39 to Shell Knob, then Highway 86 west to Arkansas. Then take Highway 23 directly into Eureka Springs.

It is an easy two-hour drive, with plenty of places to pull over and sightsee and take pictures, and a variety of eating spots and supermarkets for last-minute trip items.

Our group of four from Springfield selected the Victoria Inn, up on the highway near the famous Passion Play. The trolley came right through the parking lot two or three times an hour. Our travel friends were knowledgeable about local dining spots, and they recommended Emillios, which featured some of the best cuisine, service and menu variety I have encountered in recent years, either in Springfield, or in the metropolitan area.

Another fascinating dining destination is the wonderfully named Mud Street Expresso Cafe, which specializes in breakfast and lunches, featuring a fabulous in-house bakery with scones and brownies, and the best cup of coffee this side of Columbia, S.A. Also recommended is Cafe Luigi, a romantic outdoor waterfall dining patio, with good food and mostly good service.

Survival tips for the Festival: park your car, use the trolleys and Blues Bus, and do some walking. Bring plenty of cool clothing, comfortable walking shoes, a good sense of humor and patience, extra money, and take your time.

If you want to eat in the popular spots, eat dinner as soon as they offer it, then go to the shows and auditorium events. Our group usually left one car at the hotel and used the other to commute to the fringe parking lots and to eating spots.

Some of the best tours of Eureka Springs are walking tours, and while we were there, Eureka Springs won a national award for top 10 walking towns per person in small communities in the United States, according to Walking magazine.

See you at the Blues Festival!

(Kenny Knauer is an organizer of the St. Pat's Parade, a participant with the parks, greenways and open spaces committee of Vision 20/20, and a long-time member and volunteer on the steering committee of Founder's Park.)

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