Nowhere has blues been so transformed as in Chicago. To this day, the sounds of gritty, electric blues regularly fills the night air in this great incubator of the genre. One such club is Blue Chicago. There is nothing flashy at their older location (536 Clark Street) except the artwork of John Carroll Doyle. It is small, smoky and lackluster - everything a real blues club should be. Infamous doorman, Lorenzo, welcomes patrons and makes them feel at home once they adjust to his burliness. Within minutes, on the eve of this year's festival, we were engulfed by the conventional yet invigorating sounds of Willie Kent, Chicago's premier bass player, and His Gents.
Kent has spent most of his career in Chi-town and has played with many of the city's blues greats since the 50s. His on-stage persona reflects a deep-rooted love for this music. With little fanfare (other than W.C. Handy Awards for best blues bassist) he plays and sings straightforward Chicago style blues. On this night his regular and well-seasoned Gents included Jake Dawson & Haguy King on guitar and Ken Barker on keys. Up-and-comer Haguy dazzled the crowd with his intense vocals and powerful fretboard work during the initial set. He had the Albert King sound down tight on numbers like "Natural Ball" and "Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong". Later, fellow Blue Chicago regular Patricia Scott joined the stage and aggressively belted out "Down Home Blues" among others. The remaining sets were all pure Willie Kent. His Mississippi heritage emanated from every song such as "Born In The Delta". The Sugar Bear competently broke into a real blues groove with funk/soul and packed the dance floor into the wee wee hours. The Gents didn't just play together, they played with and off each other, creating a full and powerful sound. It was definitely one of the best performances of the weekend.
Over the past few years Blue Chicago has created their own label and released several discs which feature the club's regular artists. Adjacent to the 536 Clark Street location is the Blue Chicago store. It carries various apparel, Doyle prints CDs, etc. Further information can be found at www.bluechicago.com
The Hothouse (www.hothouse.net) is not regularly a blues club but their after bluesfest glow parties have become a tradition. It is an upscale place with fantastic sightlines. This non-profit performing arts center is officially known as Chicago's Center for International Performance and Exhibition. The standard fare features various styles of jazz and world music. On May 30, Delmark Records' Blues Divas were the main attraction. When you have voices as strong as these ladies, a supporting band as equally strong is mandatory. The BTS Express were astounding in their support role for these 2 supreme vocalists. Before the ladies took the stage to perform a bunch of songs about those no good men, the assertive band kicked things off. Singer/guitarist John Hill was exceptional on "Crosscut Saw". Mississippi born and bred Zora Young is the epitome of female Chicago blues singers. She originally sang gospel music in her church. When her family migrated north, her musical interests migrated to blues and soul. Zora thundered onto the stage with her powerful pipes and played "Blues Falling Down Like Rain" for the first time ever with the BTS Express. Her smooth yet strong vocals challenged the band to musically soar to new heights. As this was not her regular backing band, there were plenty of covers throughout the duration of her set.
For more than 25 years, Big Time Sarah (Streeter) has been a Chicago blues woman of power. She has a unique, raspy voice that emotes rich, deep blues. Sarah's portion of the set heavily featured her stormy and hefty vocals amongst some killer guitar. "Red Dress" was an original in the vein of "High Heel Sneakers". "Fannie Mae" is a BTS staple complete with lyrics that prove her ever-present determination. Here she interchanged the CD version's lyrics ('biggest hips') with bar-room talk ('biggest tits'). Onstage BTS was rude & crude like Etta James. She loved shaking her bottom for the compact crowd. On one tune she had 3 women from the audience join her for a booty shake festival. Big Time seemed disappointed that the crowd was small. As such, she admitted, it was difficult for her to get pumped. Rumor had it that Buddy Guy's Legends was packed. Since it was only 1 block away, BTS threatened to go and drag people out of his club and bring them to the Hothouse. Sarah concluded with her usual "House On Fire" complete with audience participation on the 'we don't need no water, let the MF-er burn' part. Young returned and avoided originals from her stunning Learned My Lesson CD. She stuck with familiar covers such as "Thank You" and "Dust My Broom". She acknowledged the small but mighty crowd as being the "real stars" of the evening. Overall, it was a remarkable performance, full of the passion and emotion that enthralled me into the blues many years ago.
While the festival is on, Buddy Guy's Legends (www.buddyguys.com) features entertainment during the day and night. It is essentially a festival within a festival. Many of the daytime events at Legends are free. One such being the fifth annual WXRT (www.wxrt.com) live broadcast held May 31. This local powerhouse rock station has been a strong supporter of blues music for many years. Throughout 2 incredible hours the overflowing club was subjected to today's finest artists. Although Legend's is world-renowned, it didn't attain this status from its sound system. Rather the attraction is its size, its consistent stellar schedule of artists and its owner.
Still incredibly pumped from winning another W.C. Handy Award, Shemekia Copeland took the stage first with an omnipotence and tore it apart with "Wild, Wild Woman". Shemekia has the charisma of an entertainer who has performed for over 20 years even though she is only 23 years of age. She performed many songs from her 2 prodigiously popular CDs. Later, during an interview between songs with WXRT's Tom Marker, she mentioned she has just recorded her third CD. It was produced by Dr John so she proudly proclaimed to 'expect some funk'. Next, the club's namesake got up and played an acoustic solo number. He informed the crowd that he plans to record an acoustic CD later this year. Son House protégé John Mooney kept up the acoustic momentum while W.C. Clark laid down some soulful blues. He included a performance of the tune he co-wrote w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Cold Shot." The crowd, now extremely loud with their approval of the music, nearly shook the foundation lose as Mr. Guy returned and jammed with Clark's band. The audience responded to his every move and note and warmed to his bright smiles which exemplified his gratification.
The House of Blues is a popular chain of clubs throughout the States cashing in on the Blues Brothers movies. Ironically, rock artists are the regular feature on the main stage. HoB is best described as a blues club for people who think they like the blues. It has a corporate image and is heavily financed by the huge conglomerate that it itself is - picture a blues-themed Hard Rock Café. From what I could tell of the Chicago locale, it is more of a pick up joint than a blues club.
A string of young, vital artists are keeping Chicago blues alive and infusing new life to the genre. One such artist is Big James Montgomery (www.bigjames.com). The Chicago-based singer/songwriter/producer/trombone-player is a former member of the Little Milton and Albert King bands but it was the late Johnny Christian who had the biggest influence on him. Together with his fierce yet festive band, the Chicago Playboys, they regularly play Chicago's most popular blues clubs. Their latest disc was voted one of the top CDs for 2001 by Living Blues magazine.
The HoB's Back Porch Restaurant doesn't offer great sightlines but the sound quality is superb. Within hearing the first notes, you could tell this was an experienced band rich in the rough, funky, soul/blues sound of Chicago's non-tourist blues clubs. How incredibly ironic for them to be performing this style of blues in the city's most touristy club. The brass section of Big James and Charlie Kimble (sax) harmonized and created a pulsating rhythm on "Da' Coldest Man I Ever Knew". "I Like Your Style" was a shake your booty tune that had the dance floor packed. Like a chorus line, all band members kicked in unison while performing "Da Blues Will Never Die". During the song, Big James tells it like it is, 'some people look at me with scorn but I don't care because I was born to play this horn'. CC played a staggering and wicked bass solo as he walked about the crowd. He put some bass in the place by putting it right in our face! James and his Playboys know how to funk around. The current lineup of the band has been playing together since 1998 and they pour their hearts, sweat and power into every funkin' excellent performance. If you don't know, now you know it was worth the trip to Chicago just to catch them.
On June 1, it was back to Legends to escape from the blistering mid-day heat. Bass playing singer/songwriter Sam Cockrell (www.samcockrell.com) has been writing, performing and recording original music since the age of nine. Cockrell is part of the new bluesbloods such as Big James who are determined to add diversity to blues music. Sam and his hot, regular backing band, the Groove, had the temperature as scorching as it was outside. In fact, they played so tight you couldn't blow this Groove apart. Throughout the afternoon, Chris Forte (guitar), Rob Davis (drums) and Rick Perkins (keys) proved they are a distinct and proficient group.
Sam has 2 very impressive independent CDs available. However, experiencing the band performing live was incredible. Without the Memphis Horns, the songs from the 2nd disc lost some of their funk/soul feel but that was more than compensated for by band's high energy and Sam's charisma. He grinned from ear to ear as he sang the title track of his debut disc: ' I sleep all day. I play all night. I wouldn't change a thing. It's a wonderful life.' Cockrell's voice was smooth and enticing yet articulate and commanding on "When We're Together". Then his thundering bass and Chris' grinding guitar traded solos. In between originals, they added well known standards like SRV's "Little Sister" and Wolf's "Built For Comfort" which crescendoed to near stage explosion. An aroused member of the audience asked for "Sexx." The tune was a funkalicious, danceable call for booty. Sam Cockrell and the Groove are the perfect cross-pollination of blues, R&B, soul, funk, Motown, pop and jazz.
At anytime of year, you will find the blues alive in Chicago. However, during the annual blues festival, fans have the opportunity to see and hear a multitude of talent at a series of venues. Special thanks to Bernadette Battaglia, Otto Dony and Sam Cockrell.
Visit Portraits In Performance Photography for more pictures from the Chicago Blues Festival.
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