I took a long weekend to Chicago early in August, since I had missed this year's Chicago Blues Festival. This time, the pace was more leisurely without the crowds and intensity of all the music, allowing me to see some things I might not have seen otherwise.
For instance, for a quick history lesson in Chicago blues, check out the Chicago Blues Archives on the eighth floor of the monumental Harold Washington Library. The Archives started with a donation from the local radio station WXRT-FM and are now twenty years old. They house a vast collection of audio and visual recordings, written material, posters and photos. Each year, I send several pictures that I've taken at the Chicago Blues Festival that document the performances to the Archives.
The Archives are more than just a repository of blues stuff, as there are always exhibits that feature blues-related memorabilia. This time, there was a display about Sun Records and the photographic show, "A View of the Blues" by William Albert Allard. Allard traveled from Mississippi via Memphis and on to Chicago, capturing informal shots of musicians and blues joints for National Geographic magazine.
Another Archive activity is the "Speakin' of the Blues" series. These free programs feature interviews and live performances by local Chicago blues legends. Recent musicians included Barrelhouse Chuck, Willie `Big Eyes" Smith, Little Arthur Duncan and Aaron Moore.
It wasn't all study, though: it was out to the blues clubs at night. Blue Chicago has two clubs within two blocks of each other, The club at 736 N. Clark had bassist Willie Kent and the Gents with vocalist Pat Scott. James Wheeler was also sitting in with the band on guitar that night. A hand stamp at the door there got me into the other club at 536 N. Clark for free to hear the Johnny B. Moore Blues Band with Shirley Johnson as their featured singer. For nationally venues that draw mostly out-of-town patrons, both of these clubs are no bigger than Zena's and have the same basic "no frills" décor.
Sunday was jam night at KoKo Taylor's Celebrity, a club that recently opened at 1233 Wabash, near Buddy Guy's Legends. KoKo was not there but a lot of her awards are displayed on the brown walls and in cases, including her four W. C. Handy trophies. It's worth a trip to the bathrooms to see the corridor-long gallery of photos of KoKo with other musicians and celebrities on the way. The place is spacious, with a pool table by the front window, Christmas lights around the mirror behind the bar and an ample stage at the back.
There were only a few people there to hear Cyris Hayes and The Soul Review. Hayes mixed a lot of soul with his blues, with some strong harp and vocals on "I Found a Love," "Let's Straighten It Out" and my favorite, "My Last Two Dollars." The band was loose and having a good time, since it was jam night, with Lady Lee and Harmonica Jack helping out during the second set.
The blues have finally come to Frankfort by way of a new bar, The Brick Alley on historic St. Clair St., formerly called Horsefeathers. Eric Cowden, one of the four owners, said "since Frankfort didn't have a decent venue for blues and jazz, we patterned our place after Cheapside in Lexington and Stevie Ray's in Louisville." The 3,500 square foot space can hold between 250 and 300 people in booths and at tables. The building is one of the oldest in Frankfort, built in the early 1800s. The owners have maintained the original architectural character by restoring the fifteen-foot high tin ceiling, exposing the brick walls, keeping the original bar and refinishing the wood floors. The stage is at the back, with a good-sized dance floor. They plan to open a beer garden out back, featuring a brick patio, waterfall and mural by mid-September (sound familiar?). The Brick Alley has been open just three weeks, with live music Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Another owner, Austen Rawlings, said "The musicians just love this place with its good acoustics." Logan Leit (Eric's dad) and the Lie played the first weekend, followed by two local groups, the Ray Byrd Band and the Forecasters, featuring Keith Hubbard. Future acts will include the Rock Stars of Soul, Sacré Bleu and the Kelly Richey Band. Eric and Austen are looking to book more musicians at this classy bar, so contact Eric at 859-948-2750 if your band is looking for a gig in Frankfort.
We Have a Winner
Each year, the quality of the competition gets turned up another notch for the KBS Unsigned Blues Contest. The four judges - Mark Stein, Marty Rosen, Dick Irby and Marvin Maxwell - had their work cut out for them, listening and evaluating nine bands from 4:40 to 10 p.m. on Sunday, August 19 at Stevie Ray's. The Michael Gough Band from Bowling Green opened the competition, or as Gough said, "did the first sound check." Their material was all original, with Gough doing an emotional vocal of "Liberty Line, named after a way station on the Underground Railroad. Dr. Hemiola and the Blues Activators were back for their third try, with an all-star band that included Walter Lay (sans beard), Jimmy Brown, John Burgard, Gary Underwood and Julie Spencer. Spencer is also the new music director at St. Williams Catholic Church. Burgard sang a few of his songs, including "Raised by Wolves" and "Touched in the Night," While Lay did his "Bill Collins Romance."
The band that came the greatest distance was Blues Kravin, from Ashland, N.C. They had a lot of showman (and -woman)ship. Their featured female vocalist, Jess McConnell, was on and off the stage, during her Janis Joplin thing. Ron Harris and the Knott Brothers did their power trio with guitar, drums and keyboard. (Harris should brush up on his blues history: he credited "Trouble No More" to the Allman Brothers, rather than to Muddy Waters and "The Sky Is Crying" to Elmore, not Robert, Johnson.)
Blind Dog Gatewood was back this year as a trio instead of solo, picking guitar, blowing harp and singing, almost all at the same time. The last band was One Card Shy and they actually were short one musician on stage - their lead guitarist, Kevin Hines, was underage and had to accompany the band using a remote pickup, playing his "outside" guitar" on the sidewalk in front of Stevie Ray's. The camaraderie between the musicians and the crowd throughout the evening was great and Smoke Daddy's quickly sold out of their prize-winning barbecue.
Oh, yes, who was the winner? After the ballots were tallied and checked Brenda Major, the KBS president, announced that Ron Harris and The Knott Brothers were third, Dr. Hemiola and the Blues Activators were second (for the third time) and Blues Kravin was the big winner. They will be back to play at the Six Flags Blues Festival in September and then to travel to Memphis to represent the KBS in the International Blues Challenge in February 2002.