By Jim Dees
Complaints are thick clouds that produce no rain.
Ancient folk wisdom<>
There was a time when hating on the Double Decker Festival’s musical lineup was a favorite parlor game for Oxonians. No real headliners, not enough local bands, too many obscure acts, the naysayers complained.
Such carping seems to have abated in recent years. As the festival prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary this weekend, what’s left of my memory began to jog. Past festivals came into view…
The 1999 festival, like many, was plagued by rain. When I arrived that Saturday, there was Blue Mountain on stage, rocking full bore and an ecstatic crowd dancing themselves dry. Later, Southern Culture on the Skids punctuated their song, “Eight Piece Box,” by throwing fried chicken into the crowd. Jimmy “Super Chikan” Johnson wowed everyone with his homemade cigar box guitar, the back of which opened up to reveal a half pint of Jack Daniels.
Later that night, former Oxford Mayor, the late Pat Lamar, introduced Lucinda Williams, which is the kind of pairing that gives our little eclectic festival its homegrown flavor. In 2000, the festival featured headliner Wilco with Texas songwriter, Alejandro Escovedo, and Mississippi’s own, R.L. Burnside. Alejandro later repaired to Proud Larry’s to hang out with Oxford writer, the late Larry Brown.
In 2001, the guitar virtuoso David Lindley played his wacked–out brand of gonzo reggae with his drummer, Wally Ingram. Most in the crowd had probably never heard of him and attendance was sparse which made it more of a treat. Preceding Lindley were The Campbell Brothers who played gospel steel music with two steel guitars.
The headliner that night was British guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson, who started late due to a shower but held the crowd in thrall with just his voice and guitar. I watched from the Square Books balcony back when the main stage was on South Lamar outside of Proud Larry’s.
The great Latino rockers, Los Lobos, headlined in 2003. I was working on the stage crew by this time and still remember how professional and polite the band and their crew were. Perhaps it was easy for them to be in an agreeable mood after they feasted on grilled salmon catered by City Grocery before the show.
Someone told me later one of the riders in their contract specified, “No Mexican food.” In 2004 local favorites, Beanland, secretly rehearsed all week for their reunion set only to have a torrential thunderstorm drown them out after four songs. Headliner Dr. John never got off his tour bus.
Since then, over the past 10 years, the festival has come into its own and silenced its critics by featuring such A-list acts as Drive-By Truckers, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart, Buddy Guy, the Avett Brothers, Robert Randolph, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Iron and Wine and Mavis Staples, among dozens of others.
Ms. Staples was a personal highlight for me. I’ve been a fan for years and having the opportunity to meet her (in 2012) and give her a hug will always be my sweetest Double Decker memory. I can remember having to bend down so low to embrace her and being struck by how such a powerful voice emanated from that tiny frame. Although she was raised in Chicago, Mississippi is in her blood and her southern soul shines through the entire time you talk to her.
And that’s just the music. The Double Decker Festival also offers a chance to purchase unique art from area artists and fresh food from local restaurants. It’s not Jazz Fest or Memphis in May, or Something-polooza. It’s a small town festival that still manages to deliver big league pleasures, conveniently, with no cover charge. If you act right and “keep it in a cup,” you can have a fine time. Oxford is such a well-behaved place; even the Porta-Potties aren’t too bad.
I offer a toast to the Double Decker Festival. To keep anything going for 20 years is quite a feat. The past 20 years of music has been weird and wonderful. To the complainers and detractors I say,
“Keep guzzling the Haterade.” If you really want something to complain about, come out this weekend and watch me dance.
Jim Dees has lived in Oxford for over 30 years and lived to tell the tale.