Robert Belfour
Red’ s Place; Clarksdale, MS

Fueled by a hankering for authenticity, my father and I drove across Mississippi a few weeks ago in search of something (anything) that wasn’t a fast food chain, a home or structure wrecked by Katrina, or something too foreboding for our Northeastern psyches. We had just left Greenville, MS, a blues town with a resolute urban blight that called to mind mid-’90s Johannesburg. After tentatively checking the local haunts for any music, we left the next morning for Clarksdale, the home of the crossroads and a slightly more welcoming music scene.

Wandering around the town, we ended up in a homemade rock ‘n’ roll museum owned by Theo Dasbach, a Dutch native transplanted to the Delta. His collection was impressive, and after a tour I asked him if he knew of anything worth seeing that night. He told me he’d call Red’s Place, his favorite in town. After a short conversation consisting mostly of Dasbach saying “you gotta tell me about these things, man!” he hung up the phone and told us that Robert Belfour was playing. He explained that Belfour was as talented and experienced as any of the greats but, partly due to his intense lack of promotion, had never hit it big.

After some later research, I found out that he was right; Robert “Wolfman” Belfour may be the most under-appreciated blues musician still alive. Belfour studied with legends like R.L. Burnside and is one of the last surviving masters of the original Hill Country blues (as opposed to the Delta blues). In an unfortunate and ironic accident, Belfour was mentioned in a recent Boston Globe article as Robert Belford, another small step in the great man’s push to the obscure reaches of blues history. Nonetheless, his use of eccentric tunings, forceful vocals, and long, grizzly vamps has earned him his nickname and a heroic place among his group of dedicated supporters.

Figuring an hour and a half after the start time would be safe, we got to the outside of Red’s at 10:30 to find a rusted boiler and a closed door. I slowly opened the door to a dead-silent room of ten people and Red gazing just over my forehead. I handed him $10 and quietly took a seat at a table on the right side of the room. Belfour, fiddling with his guitar tuning, sat in a chair surrounded by an improvised merch table and a few amps. He pulled out a small bottle of gin, took a swig, and in a simultaneously heartbreaking and comedic way, shuddered violently. “I just can’t drink this stuff anymore!” he grimaced, and then asked Red for a Bud Light.

Watching Belfour tune his guitar was almost as engaging as listening to his music; his maddeningly percussive test strokes of strings that seemed impossibly out of tune would have made a great Stockhausen study. This continued for a few minutes and somehow segued into a introductory vamp, which I didn’t even realize had started until I saw Red bobbing his head from behind the bar.

Belfour took no time to demonstrate his virtuosity. His ability to separate parts, from the bassline to the drifting countermelodies, was astounding and nothing short of trance-inducing. After five or so minutes of this, he leaned in close to the microphone, closed his eyes, and howled four octaves lower than a wolf in the wild. Somehow, his vocals stole the spotlight from his guitar playing, cutting through the room with ineffable lamentations about life in a way that I couldn’t even pretend to relate to.

It was difficult to divine Belfour’s setlist, not only because many of the songs he played were mixed and matched, but also because there were only a few breaks between each piece, which averaged about 10 minutes each. This long form, deeply rhythmic style contrasts with the more concise Delta style, and at least in this setting filled with starry-eyed visitors, seemed more powerful than the local tradition.

After an hour of this soulful music, the small crowd began to saunter out into the cool, 85-degree, muggy evening, dropping money in the bucket on the way out. Belfour made sure to personally thank everyone and engaged in a conversation with two visitors from Portland. “Y’all have a safe trip back to Po’ land!” Belfour offered on their way out. The couple then proceeded to explain that they were from Portland, not Poland, to Belfour’s wry smile and raised eyebrow.

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