A Visit to Blues Heaven On Earth
Chicago is often referred to as the "home of the blues." While the blues wasn't
necessarily born in the Windy City, it certainly has done some serious growing up
there. The annual Chicago Blues Festival attracts visitors from all over the world and
the entire city buzzes with excitement for the four day free event at Grant Park.
Additionally, the abundance of concurrent events at clubs all over the city sweetens
the pot for blues fans.
The Chicago Blues Festival is the largest free festival in the United States and
consistently one of the best that I have been lucky enough to attend. With six stages, an endless variety of food and merchandise vendors, along with booths offering education and information on the blues and blues clubs in the area, the Festival has something for just about everyone. Confirmation of this comes from the fact that over 100,000 people attend the event annually.
The opening of the 18th Annual Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park, right along Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago, was rewarded by a break in the rain and bad weather that had plagued the city for weeks. The sudden appearance of bright, warm sunshine offered a great promise to festival organizers, sponsors, vendors and blues fans that was gratefully realized over the four days.
With so much activity going on each day it is virtually impossible to see or hear every
blues act performing at the festival. That does not include the vast array of street
musicians who are performing simultaneously at the Festival entrance and along parts of Michigan Avenue. Attendees are forced to pick and choose among the acoustic blues, electric blues, zydeco, soul, jazz, r&b, jugband, rock n' roll acts appearing on any one of six stages. Although "national" acts dominate the event, there are a large number of local acts that appear as well, particularly on the Best Buy Stage. Such decisions can be maddening and with nearby clubs like Buddy Guy's Legends offering their own "mini festival" by offering musical acts all day and into the evening or the Hot House with its after festival shows, it becomes even crazier.
This year's lineup included a variety of sounds and performers who have had a huge
impact on music over the past 70 years or more. The "names" at the festival included Chuck Berry, Jimmy McCracklin, Pinetop Perkins, Homesick James, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Ike Turner, Honeyboy Edwards, Sam Lay and Johnnie Mae Dunston, just to name a few. Among the "up and comers" were Fruteland Jackson, Mighty Mo Rodgers, Dave Specter, Eomot RaSun, The Rockin' Johnny Band, C. J. Chenier and Ronnie Baker Brooks and Joanna Connor. Finally, there were the new comers including Rob Stone & The C-Notes, Nigel Mack and Blues Attack, Roger Connelly and The Blues Merchants and Howard and The White Boys.
Rather than write reviews on every act (which would be insane), I would like to
provide highlights for each day of the Festival. Hopefully, this will give everyone a flavor
of the 18th Annual Chicago Blues Festival and provide some incentive to attend the
Festival in the future.
Day 1 - Thursday, June 7
When my plane touched down around 11:00 a.m. at Midway Airport in Chicago, there
was no rain but it was cloudy. However, by the time I got to Grant Park, the sun had
finally broken through the clouds, creating what would be uniformly great weather for
all four days of the Festival.
Every stage had someone I was interested in seeing, some simultaneously. Highlight on the Gibson Crossroads Stage were the opening set by guitarist Jimmy Burns (one of my personal favorites), followed by Dave Specter's Organ Summit incorporating three fine organists; Chris Foreman, Rob Waters and John Brimbach. Specter's jazzy guitar and the sounds pouring from the mighty B-3 organ was enough to give everyone chills.
The Juke Joint Stage featured blues educator and musician, Fruteland Jackson who
told excellent stories mixed with the performance of some exceptional country blues.
He was followed by David "Honeyboy" Edwards who, despite his age (84), continues to dazzle and charm blues audiences where ever he performs. Honeyboy appeared again later in the day on the Front Porch Stage with local artists, Devil In a Woodpile. The additional musicians added an interesting dimension and sound to Honeyboy's work since I have never really heard him perform as anything but a solo act.
One of the great highlights of Day 1 for me was getting an opportunity to see West
Coast blues artist, Mighty Mo Rodgers for the first time on the Front Porch Stage. His special blend of soul and blues, coupled with his unique presentation and sound,
translated into a very charismatic performance. He played several songs from his last CD, Blues Is My Wailing Wall, along with several samples from his upcoming release, Red, White and Blues. It was a fantastic performance that I was sorry to see end.
The best show I witnessed on the Best Buy Stage was the closing performance by Rob Stone & The C-Notes. This is a great local band with a number of national ties and a bright future. Led by harp player Rob Stone, accompanied by some fabulous guitar from Chris James, Rob Stone & The C-Notes put out an exciting brand of classic Chicago blues. Their excellent show, in front of an audience that seemed to ebb and flow in front of them as it passed on to other Festival stages, attracted a great deal of attention for the small stage. The band also has an excellent sense of blue history, evidenced by their appearance on Friday at the Route 66 Roadhouse Stage with legendary drummer Sam Lay, to discuss and demonstrate the development of Chicago combo blues.
The first day ended with a memorable performance by the ageless wonder of rock n'
roll, Chuck Berry. From the minute Berry took the stage in his blue sequined shirt and white captain's hat, the crowd at the Petrillo Bandshell roared to their feet and did
not sit down for the entire performance. His "greatest hits" show opened with "Roll
Over Beethoven" and included other Berry classics like "Memphis," "Carol," "Hail Hail
Rock n' Roll" and "Havana Moon," along with numerous other Berry favorites. It
couldn't have been a better way to conclude the opening day of the Festival!
Day 2 - Friday, June 8
I arrived at Grant Park early on Friday, specifically to see bluesman Willie King, who
was scheduled to perform on the Best Buy Stage at noon. Even though he was
scheduled to appear two more times at the festival, I figured this would be my best
chance to get up close to the performance. Disappointingly, upon arriving I found out
that King had cancelled his appearances at the festival due to an unexpected death in his family.
The other scheduled performers on Friday relied heavily on some exceptional
harmonica players. The early performances included Billy Branch and guitarist Roy
Hytower, accompanied by the Grant Academy Blues Babies on the Front Porch Stage. Branch was presenting his latest class of students from his Blues In The Schools program, performing the songs of Willie Dixon. At the Gibson Crossroads Stage, the audience experienced a triple shot of harp players including Tad Robinson, Matthew Skoller and Eomot RaSun. Every one of the three harp men put on a high energy show, as if they were providing the only "real" harp performance of the day.
As indicated earlier, Rob Stone reappeared on Friday at the Route 66 Roadhouse Stage to play his harp and discuss the development of Chicago combo blues with the assistance of the C-Notes and drummer Sam Lay. The group provided an informative and entertaining show, marred only by the absence of scheduled performer Dave Myers who was unable to attend due to poor health.
The assault of harp players ended early in the evening with a 50th birthday performance by Billy Branch (complete with a birthday cake) at the Petrillo Bandshell. With the assistance of vocalist Barbara LaShoure and numerous special guests, including former Sons of Blues guitarist Carl Weathersby, Branch put on a great performance that showcased his enormous talent on the regular and chromatic harmonica.
As if things couldn't get any better, the last two acts at the Petrillo Bandshell just blew me (and everyone else) away. First, Robert Jr. Lockwood did an over-the-top performance for that legendary bluesman and one of the last living links to the mysterious Robert Johnson. This was followed by another legendary performer, Ike Turner, who was as good as I have ever heard him. Performing songs from his latest recording, Here and Now, Turner's show included a special appearance by none other than Pinetop Perkins. This made the performance most memorable, especially when the two men met at center stage at the end of the performance. The two legends would appear together again on Saturday afternoon, giving a performance that was a piano lover's dream. I left the Festival on Friday wondering if things could possibly get any better.
Day 3 - Saturday, June 9
After a wonderful chance meeting with Ike Turner at Jazz Record Mart, I arrived at
Grant Park early on Saturday afternoon. I was surprisingly greeted by the stinging
guitar of Carl Weathersby on the Front Porch Stage. It just so happened that
Weathersby turned out to be a welcome last minute replacement for the absent
Willie King. Carl is an immense talent and a nice man, making it a pleasure to get an unexpected opportunity to see him perform beyond his guest appearance with Billy Branch on Friday evening.
Most of Saturday leading up to the evening finale by one of my all time favorite
guitarists, Otis Rush, was spent at the Front Porch Stage. On Saturday, the Front
Porch had a steady stream of incredible performers, appearing one after the other.
One of the best, following the set by Carl Weathersby, occurred when Ike Turner and
Pinetop Perkins took the stage for one of the finest piano shows I have ever witnessed. Turner was as good as he had been the night before, with an audience that was able to get more "up close and personal" than is ever possible at the Petrillo Bandshell. Pinetop and Ike played off of each other again and again, trading solos and sharing the stage in a most natural way. Pinetop was obviously tired from the heat on Saturday afternoon, but he performed like the showman he is. It was like a dream come true for me and everyone else lucky enough to see the show.
As if that was not enough, Eddie King and the Swamp Bees followed Turner and
Perkins with a killer show of their own. Eddie's performance again demonstrated why
he is one of the most respected (and underrated) guitarists in the blues today. Ending the day on the Front Porch Stage was yet another blues legend, 96 year old Homesick James, who literally looks and plays like a much younger man. I was amazed at the things Homesick continues to do with a guitar and a good song. Backed by drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and bassist Robert Stroger, the band brought back strong visions of the old time Chicago blues sounds.
Otis Rush finished on the day at the Petrillo Bandshell, reconfirming why I love his
guitar and his music so much. Every time I hear Rush perform (which is not nearly
often enough), I am moved by his performance and left wondering why he is not far
more revered for his work. As one of the creators of the West Side sound, Rush can
still put it all together, just as he did on Saturday night. He left me and everyone else
wanting more, moRE, MORE!
Day 4 - Sunday, June 10
When I got up on Sunday morning, I could feel that my wonderful visit to "blues
heaven on earth" was drawing to a close. I began my day at the Jazz Record
Mart/Delmark Records Blues Brunch for a continental breakfast and a couple hours of
great live blues in an intimate and relaxed setting where I could listen and talk to
some of my favorite performers including Jimmy Burns, James Wheeler, Willie Kent,
Ken Saydak and The Big DooWopper to name a few.
Leaving Jazz Record Mart well fed and primed for a day of blues music, I arrived at
Grant Park just in time to see one of my "blues buddies," Steve Arvey and his musical partner, Kraig Kenning performing on the Best Buy Stage. I talked with Steve later to find out that he an Kraig had spent the day before doing the street musician scene, selling a lot of CDs and taking in a tidy sum of "donations." I was sorry I missed it but, like I said before, it is just impossible to see and hear everything.
One of my other Sunday favorites was getting to see The Holmes Brothers perform on
the Front Porch Stage. Combining great harmonies with the blues and gospel sounds, Sherman and Wendell Holmes, along with Popsie Dixon were as amazing as ever, performing twice on Sunday and signing autographs next to the Gibson Guitars display near the Juke Joint Stage.
At the Route 66 Roadhouse Stage, I took in a very interesting , informative and
entertaining presentation and performance on the development of songs from
composition to recording. The session featured songwriters/producers/performers,
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham; "birthday boy," Jimmy McCracklin, who would be
celebrating his 80th birthday with a performance at the Petrillo Bandshell later in the
day; and vocalist Irma Thomas, who would be providing the Festival's closing
performance that night. The presenters answered questions, told stories and
performed songs that brought back some great memories. Their knowledge and humor was very refreshing and made the evening performances that much more attractive.
The most moving performance of the day involved C.J. Chenier, son of zydeco legend,
Clifton Chenier, who was performing with the Carl and Chester Chavis, the sons of the
great Boozoo Chavis who had tragically passed away only a few weeks before his
scheduled performance at the 18th Annual Chicago Blues Festival. I spoke with Carl
and Chester right after their show and was informed that they planned to carry on
their father's musical legacy "as long as people would come and listen." Their
strength during a time of great sorrow brought tears to my eyes as I witnessed first
hand the love they had for their father. It was definitely the emotional highlight of
the Festival for me.
The four performances held at the Petrillo Bandshell, closed the four day Festival with
a flourish. Beginning with Son Seals, who seems to get better every time I hear him,
and ending with Irma Thomas and The Professionals, every performance was a delight. In between Seals and Thomas, C.J. Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band continued the traditions of Clifton Chenier with full on zydeco party. Next, Jimmy McCracklin delivered everything he had promised earlier in the day with his special guest, Sugarpie DeSanto. I was as fulfilled as I could possibly be from four days of great music, yet I still hoped for and wanted more.
As I got on the airplane to head back to Minnesota, I was already planning my visit for next year's Chicago Blues Festival, along with my next trip to Chicago (which will be much sooner). Based on the whole experience, I would tell anyone and everyone who has any interest in the blues to take in next year's event. I can honestly guarantee that your love of the music will only be greater from the experience.
Other reviews from the festival weekend:
18th Annual Chicago Blues Festival by Dave "Doc" Piltz
Vance Kelly & The Backstreet Blues Band by Dave "Doc" Piltz
Jimmy Johnson by Dave "Doc" Piltz
Big James and the Chicago Playboys w/Nellie "Tiger" Travis and the Men In Black by Dave "Doc" Piltz
Jazz Record Mart/Delmark Records Blues Brunch by Dave "Doc" Piltz
The Rockin' Johnny Band w/Tail Dragger by Dave "Doc" Piltz
This review is copyright © 2001 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.