The 27th Chicago Blues Festival is now history. I have survived my 25th time attending this three day event, which was held this year on June 11, 12 and 13. If you got the time, it is better to arrive a day early to get settled in and take in some of the sights Chicago has to offer.
A visit to the new Buddy Guy's Legends was a must. It recently moved to the north end of the 700 block on S. Wabash where the Club U.N. and the Hot House used to be. Thursday, June 10, WXRT 93 was doing a live broadcast from the club, featuring Otis Taylor and Jimmy Johnson with no cover. This was too good to be true, especially to find Buddy Guy in the house.
The club had just opened two weeks ago and the staff was still wearing their t-shirts displaying the address from the former location. The exterior sign on the corner of the building is similar to the original and the interior has the same feel except it's a little bigger and cleaner. Buddy said "I wanted to keep it as close to the original as possible." Several guitars are displayed on the wall instead of the Mt. Bluesmore mural.
Tom Marker, the DJ with WXRT, served as emcee during the broadcast. Buddy acknowledged that Howlin' Wolf was born 100 years ago in West Point, Mississippi. The centennial of his birth was to be the theme for the entire festival.
Otis Taylor's music was intense, using his mastery of his banjo as his medium. Buddy sat in with the band and played some acoustic guitar and sang "What'd I Say" between broadcast segments. Jimmy Johnson's high-pitched voice and resonate hollow body guitar licks gave me chills as always, especially when he sang "Cold, Cold Feeling." Buddy joined Johnson on stage for a jam on "Dust My Broom." Buddy was a gracious host the whole evening, standing near the entrance, signing autographs and greeting guests. This was the 13th year for Legend's Blues Fest which continued during the entire weekend with the who's who of Chicago blues performing.
When the festival officially opened on Friday, the city was inundated with the Chicago Blackhawk fans pouring onto Michigan Avenue for a parade and rally celebrating their team's winning the Stanley Cup. Many fans, still wearing their bright red shirts and jerseys, stayed for the festival, which added to the already large and colorful crowd. Over the next three days, there would be eighty-one acts on six stages, which meant it was impossible to see them all, so some tough choices were required. The WCBS Street Stage, sponsored by the Windy City Blues Society, was a new venue behind the Chicago Art Institute which featured local talent, but because there were so many other distractions, I never got there.
The best of the highlights on Friday were as follows:
• Grady Champion worked the crowd while on and off the Mississippi Juke Joint stage with his fiery vocals and blasts from his harp. Champion won the International Blues Competition earlier this year and his high energy showmanship gets better and better.
• The Taildragger (James Jones) performed with Jimmy Dawkin's band, singing many of Howlin' Wolf's songs as only the Taildragger can do with his deep, gruff voice. When he removed his wide-brimmed straw hat to reveal the top of his head, he sang "My Head is Bald."
• The evening shows in the Petrillo Music Shell opened with a tribute to Howlin' Wolf. Several alumni from his band gathered together, including Eddie Shaw with his band The Wolf Gang; Jody Williams; Sam Lay; Henry Gray; Abb Locke and Hubert Sumlin, who had played guitar with the Wolf for twenty two years. This moving set closed with everyone helping out on "Howlin' for My Darlin."
• The highest point was the reunion of Matt 'Guitar' Murphy with James Cotton. They had played and recorded together during the Seventies and Eighties. After a recent series of strokes, Matt had stopped playing for awhile. That night, he was back with his sharp picking to complement James' high energy blowing, each sharing the enthusiasm to be playing together again. Darrell Nulisch helped out with his soulful vocals.
Saturday brought some occasional showers and cooler temperatures but that did not deter the fans. The Petrillo Music Shell audience was a sea of multicolored umbrellas like a pointillist painting early that evening. Overall, this was the strongest day of the festival and included:
• Ramblin' Rose opened her set when she blew her harp and sang "I'm A Dirty Old Woman." This provocative local diva also played spoons on a washboard and played flute on "Ain't No Sunshine." She was backed by the Blue Road Band where she paid tribute to KoKo Taylor with "Wang Dang Doodle."
• Nora Jean Wallace has returned to using her maiden name instead of Bruso, which was her name when she recorded her first two CDs. While she may not have the greatest vocal range, she had the force to turn it up on "Miss Mae's Juke Joint" or down on "If That's What You Wanna' Do" or to church on "I Want to Shout." This was the lady who got such an enthusiastic crowd reaction at the 2006 Louisville Blues 'n' Jazz Barbecue Festival that convinced the promoters to make it an all blues festival since then.
• My surprise of the festival was K.M. Williams, who I had only heard on a few self-produced CDs. Williams and Washboard Jackson, who provided the percussion accompaniment, got the Route 66 Roadhouse tent throbbing with the primitive rhythms from his guitar and simple lyrics. Most scheduled events in the tent were esoteric discussions about the blues, but Williams derailed the packed house with one of his train wrecks. Williams will have a new record out in September on the Dialtone label if you want to hear hypnotic north Mississippi blues meets Texas boogie.
• Sonny Rhodes is a Texas legend who plays the lap steel guitar, an instrument more common to country and sacred steel. Sonny has adopted his instrument to the blues, giving it a sharp, gritty sound. Harold Martin was his flashy lead guitarist who used to play on Chicago's Westside but now lives in Canada. Rhodes closed his set singing a very personal "Life's Rainbow."
• Bobby Parker never changes with age. Now in his seventies, this dynamic guitarist played constantly from the beginning to the end of his set, pacing from one side of the Petrillo stage to the other, occasionally letting out a yelp. Parker opened with his best known hit, "Watch Your Step" and was backed by his group, The Blue Night Band.
• Chicago blues didn't get any better when Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, John Primer, Lurrie Bell and Carlos Johnson gathered together for a living history of their music. Harpman Matthew Skoller was the host, supported by Kenny Smith on drums. Jimmy Iguana played piano and bassist Felton Crews plus the ever-present Billy Flynn on guitar. This was the climax of the festival. Arnold started the history with John Lee Williamson's (Sonny Boy I) "My Little Machine." (You know the lyrics, "She's got a standard carburetor, but burning bad gasoline.") Arnold mentioned the importance of 1955 with the emergence of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, with whom he played. Arnold played "I Wish You Would," which also came out that year. The set flowed seamlessly from the past to the present and into the future, with each musician stepping up to perform. Mike Avery, Magic Sam's cousin, did a dead-on version of Sam's "Out of Bad Luck." (If Sam were still alive, he would be seventy three. Ugh!) Billy Branch, who celebrated thirty years of the Sons of Blues (SOBs) at the 2007 Chicago Blues Festival, did "Hoodoo Man Blues" in tribute to Jr. Wells. The show-stopper was when Lurrie Bell sang "My Love Will Never Die." Carlos Johnson took the blues into the future with his charismatic stage presence and left-handed explosive guitar technique that was still rooted in the Chicago Blues tradition. The closest thing to reliving this wonderful experience is to buy the two volume CD Chicago Blues A Living History that was released in 2009 on Raisin Music.