The theme for this 13th Edition was "I Ain't Superstitious, Black Cat Crossed My Path." The good omens held out until Saturday evening, when the weather turned from threatening to a steady rain during Sugar Blues' set in the Petrillo Band Shell.
There was a noticeable lack of superstars this year, and some musicians performed several times, on different days and stages. Corey Harris, the traditional acoustical guitarist, appeared six times.
I counted no fewer than seven versions of "Sweet Home Chicago," the national anthem of contemporary Chicago blues.
On Friday afternoon, the 93-year-old Diamond Tooth Mary McClain, brilliant in a sequined white dress, was wheeled onto the Front Porch Stage to sing a rousing set of blues and gospel. She harnessed all her energies for an exuberant series of songs, starting with "Let the Good Times Roll" and winding up with "When the Saints Go Marching In."
McClain is known for doing several encores for each song and she kept going on and on. Liz Pennock and Dr. Blues accompanied her on this quest on keyboard and guitar.
Later that evening in the Band Shell, Sam Phillips received the Howling Wolf Award. It was Sam who first recorded the Wolf on his Sun Records label and the set that followed was dedicated to Howling Wolf and included Eddie Shaw, Shorty Rogers, Abe 'Little Smokey' Smothers, Abb Locke, Hubert Sumlin, and Chico Chism, all alumni from Wolf's old bands. Two other Chicago musicians, Big Mojo Elem and Lester Davenport, completed the ensemble. The legacy of the Wolf and Willie Dixon was clear for all to hear as the solos soared over Grant Park.
The Juke Joint, a small platform with a canopy set up in the middle of Columbus Drive, was a new daytime event It was stand-up only, no seats, so the audience crowded around the platform to see and hear the players. There were some intimate moments, such as when Lonnie and Ronnie Brooks performed and when Paul Geremia and Guy Davis played.
Near the Juke Joint was the cabin Muddy Waters lived in as a young boy, before he went north to Chicago. The hand-hewn cypress log building has been restored and travels around the country to raise funds for the Delta Blues Museum, located in Clarksdale, Miss. and to educate people about our blues history. The cabin will eventually be returned to its original location on Stovall's Plantation.
Sunday the weather cleared and 225,000 people showed up for some outstanding Texas blues. Peter Mayes, the veteran guitarist from Double Bayou, brought his Texas House Rockers, which included Texas Jimmy Brown and Jimmy Nelson. Nelson is a blues shouter who sings in the style of Big Joe Turner. Back in the late 50's, he had a big hit with "T-99." This was an excellent sophisticated jump blues show, presented by some of the most venerated Texas musicians.
Later than evening in the Band Shell, Long John Hunter stepped from the obscurity of West Texas to national prominence, with a powerful coming-out performance that showcased his mature guitar and vocal talents. He was joined on stage by Phillip Walker for a reunion that reached back 38 years. Long John was Phillip's mentor and they played border towns together. The two bluesmen collaborated on "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," "Crazy Girl" and "Guitar Shoot Out."
Another new attraction was a small stage at the intersection of Jackson and Columbus, next to the Best Buy record tent. There were many musicians promoting their recent releases on the House of Blues and Wolf labels with brief but engaging sets in the middle of the crowd. I especially enjoyed L. V. Banks, with his son Tre, and Willie Kent with Johnny B. Moore. Even though this was a promo event, it had the spontaneity of the old Maxwell St. Market. The additional venues made for some tough choices for the best place to be to hear the blues between the four stages during the afternoon.
The Summer Blues Festival at the Water Tower on June 16 appeared almost out of nowhere. Six weeks before the event, the time, location and talent were undecided. But thanks to the hard work of Christa Curran, the local director for the American Diabetes Association, and all the sponsors and volunteers, they quickly got their acts together (so to speak).
This charity and all the local blues fans benefited from what I hope will become an annual event. Throughout the hot afternoon, the local talent was represented by the Nasty Weather Blues Band, the Mojo Filter Kings, MR2 Blues Band, Robbie Bartlett and the Mudcat Blues Band. When the sun went down, the headliners took the stage to heat things up again. Eddy 'The Chief' Clearwater appeared first, wearing his trademark Indian headress. Clearwater cuts to the bone with a style of slashing guitar and vocals that was reminiscent of the late Albert Collins.
If that wasn't enough to headline the festival, Lonnie Brooks followed, accompanied by his talented son, Ronnie. Lonnie strolled through the enthusiastic crowd during his extended solo of "You're Using Me."
Eddie joined Lonnie for – you guessed it – the umpteenth version of "Sweet Home Chicago."
The festival closed with an encore of "I Got Lucky Last Night."
We all got lucky that night.