Grant Park was the site of the Chicago Blues Festival for the twenty-eighth time on June 10 to 12. My wife and I have attended twenty-five of these festivals. We have seen this event evolve from a two-day festival with just evening shows to a world-class festival with five venues over three days.
This year, the Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events had to do some major cutbacks. Four events, including the Viva! Chicago, the Country Music Festival, Celtic Fest and the Gospel Music Festival, were incorporated into the Taste of Chicago. Fortunately, the blues and jazz festivals were kept as separate events, but with some belt tightening. The Route 66 Tent was gone and mostly local and regional musicians were featured. But that was alright because there is so much excellent talent in Chicago to enjoy.
The layout of the stages was the same. The Petrillo Music Shell hosted the main acts, including a "Tribute to Robert Johnson" to celebrate his hundredth birthday on Friday. Billy Branch and the Sons of the Blues with Magic Slim were on Saturday. Shemekia Copeland, followed by a Fortieth Anniversary of Alligator Records Tribute, was on Sunday. The Front Porch Stage featured acoustical and small bands, while the Crossroads Stage had more high-powered electric blues. The Mississippi Juke Joint Stage held some panel discussions like the Route 66 Tent used to have, plus more roots music with a Mississippi feel. The Windy City Blues Society set up a tent on Columbus Drive featuring local musicians. Due to the caliber of the talent, that venue was usually overcrowded which made it hard to see the acts. Next year they need to have a stage with some seating.
Photo By Keith Clements
The weather was cool and cloudy the first two days with the sun finally shining on Sunday. The unseasonably cool temperatures did not affect the large size of the crowds;the band shell was packed both in the amphitheater and Butler Field each night.
Our first dose of the blues was Thursday evening at Buddy Guy's Legends at 700 S. Wabash. A live, ninety-minute broadcast over 93 XRT was a free show that had Eddy Clearwater and the Brooks family, Lonnie, Ronnie and Wayne. We arrived during their sound check and recognized a friend from last year, so we got choice seats by the stage. Both Eddy and Lonnie are in their mid-70s and they looked fit and slim. They played their guitars and sang with plenty of passion. Ronnie jammed with Eddy on "I Came Up The Hard Way" and "Too Old To Get Married (Too Young To Get Buried)." Later Lonnie sat down with both of his sons to do an acoustical set that included "Something You Got" and "Hoochie Coochie Man." The program closed with a rousing version of "Sweet Home Chicago."
Friday, the Festival opened under precarious skies but Guy King and his Little Big Band quickly warmed up the Crossroads Stage with his smooth, polished voice and guitar, backed by three horns. Guy's guitar solo on "Alone In The City" was pure contemporary Chicago blues. Not bad for someone who was born and raised in Israel and served as band leader in Willie Kent's band.
Eric "Guitar" Davis was a bundle of youthful energy, moving all over the stage and eventually into the crowd during "Walking The Back Streets Crying." Eric, the son of drummer Bobby Davis, grew up on Chicago's South Side. Once, Buddy Guy gave him a well-worn Fender guitar at the Checkerboard Lounge in order to attract the girls. Sitting in with his band, the Troublemakers, was Luca Giadono, an accomplished guitarist from Italy. When I heard Eric play and sing "Young Boy Singing Blues," I knew there was hope in the next generation of bluesmen.
A singer unknown to me who made a big impression was Holle Thee Maxwell. This striking sixty-six-year old lady with long, blond hair, voluptuous figure and the poise of an opera diva had the crowd spellbound. She showed she could sing it all, from "Don't Make Your Move too Soon" to "God Bless the Child." Holle's classical background didn't restrain her from getting lowdown and raunchy.
Another blues diva, who I knew well, was Nora Jean Bruso. This was the lady who in 2006 turned the Louisville Blues-N-Jazz Barbecue Festival at the Water Tower into what would be a blues-only festival because of the enthusiastic crowd reaction. Nora Jean just keeps getting better, with a gritty voice like KoKo Taylor's. She injects plenty of gospel when she sang "We Gonna Shout." Her vocal range went from the highs to the lows on "Members Only." Her climatic killer was Luther Allison's "Cherry Red Wine," where she sang the closing stanzas a cappella. We need to get Nora Jean back to Louisville soon.
James "Super Chikan" was plucking on his assortment of exotic homemade guitars on the Juke Joint Stage, singing "Ain't Nobody Like My Baby." One of his guitars was shaped like a shotgun, which was fitting when he said "Somebody shoot that thing." He was backed by his all-female band, the Fighting Cocks, including his daughter on drums and Miss La La on keyboards. If you saw the "Chikan" at last year's Garvin Gate Blues Festival you know what I'm talking about.
That evening, the blues energy shifted to the Music Shell, where Eddie Cotton brought his versatile guitar and singing talents to the stage. Eddie's showmanship was both slick and loose as he covered soul/blues classics like "The Cause of it All" to blues standards like "Smokestack Lightning." The capacity crowd stood for most of his inspired set. When Eddie asked everyone to wave a piece of paper, the bowl became a sea of white. Jarekus Singleton, another young Mississippi guitarist, added some extra punch to the band.
The "Tribute to Robert Johnson: set was a bit of a disappointment, because David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Hubert Sumlin could not participate due to health reasons. Honeyboy turned ninety-six on June 28 and is the last living bluesman alive who played with Robert Johnson in 1937 and 1938. He was honored with a citation proclaiming that day "Honeyboy" Edwards Day in Chicago. It was accepted by Michael Frank of Earwig Records. Rocky Lawrence, a musician who also educates others about Robert Johnson, did a very convincing interpretation of his music. Steve Johnson, Robert's grandson, sang "Me and The Devil Blues" with Rocky. The tribute concluded with Duwayne Burnside, the son of R., L. Burnside, doing a jam-band set in the style of the North Mississippi Allstars. Duwayne seemed unfocused and detached from the audience, which was a distinct contrast to Eddie Cotton's performance.
It was out to the clubs later that evening, with a visit to Reggie's Music Joint at 2105 S. State St. Reggie's hosted an all-female show with ten ladies there to sing and play the blues for us. We arrived midway into the review as Liz Mandeville was singing "I Love My Kitty." Holle Thee Maxwell was back to sing "Evil Gal." She selected an unsuspecting but good-natured man from the audience to serenade him with, "Wake Up Daddy, I Don't Need No Instant Breakfast." Demetria Taylor, the daughter of guitarist Eddie Taylor, passionately sang "Voodoo Woman" and "When You Leave, Don't Take Nothing." We all chimed in on "Hey Bartender." Peaches Staten followed singing "So Long" and the Louis Jordan influenced "Something Going On In My Room." When all the women had sung their songs and the musicians, circulating in and out of the band playing harp, guitar and keyboards, it was time for the finale. The steady guitarist, Gary Lee, who played the whole night led all the ladies when they got on stage together to throw a "Wang Dang Doodle."
Next month we will return to the Festival for what happened on Saturday and Sunday.