The only way to describe the Chicago Blues Festival is colossal. The world's largest free blues festival began in 1984 and has become the city's most popular music festival. Here you will find blues newbies, purists and browsers from all over the U.S. and as far away as Italy, Germany and Canada. This year's 4 day event attracted approximately 750,000 people. Beautiful, lakeside, Grant Park is the home for the festival. Here, national, international and local blues artists perform on six stages. The Petrillo Music Shell is the mainstage and the focus of this review.
Mississippi born and Kingston Mines mainstay, Nellie "Tiger" Travis, absolutely smoldered, using her tremendous vibrato vocals, on May 30th. A gig on this stage means you have hit the big-time. So the artists get decked out as if they were arriving at the Handy Awards. Initially the sultry, R&B kitten wore a sexy black dress complete with seductive shoes. She later changed into a tiger outfit while performing upbeat, R&B originals such as "I Got It Like That" and "I've Got Amnesia".
The initial day's best dressed man was easily Lee Shot Williams (www.eckorecords.com/lw.htm). This cousin of Little Smokey Smothers was a Chicago R&B star in the 60s. Currently, he is based in Memphis. Williams poured out sweet soul which was unmatched by any of the others at the festival. His often humorous lyrics contained many sexual overtones especially on "Who's Knocking The Boots".
The North Mississippi Allstars (www.mnallstars.com) proudly performed their own brand of raucous modern music. Chris Chew (bass) along with brothers Luther (guitar) and Cody (drums) Dickinson comprise this Memphis-born, Mississippi-raised trio. Right from the get go they delivered songs such as "Shake 'Em On Down" as rough as sandpaper. The anarchy continued through numerous tracks from both of their chaotic CDs. Had more members of the all night rave crowd been in attendance, a mosh pit would have surely broken out.
May 31st's entertainment included the greatest gathering of Muddy Waters (www.muddywaters.com) Band Alumni performing on the same stage at the same time. Bandleader John Primer wore a snazzy suit and did a phenomenal job arranging/leading the music for the historic set. Harp virtuoso Carey Bell joined Muddy's band for a while in the 70s. As a member of the alumni, he performed tough yet mellow sounds. Emerging as the bona fide leader of the West Side sound was Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson (guitar). Elder statesman, Pinetop Perkins, brilliantly played piano. Perkins is now frail and almost 90 years old but he easily remains the heavyweight champ of blues piano. He eloquently laid down deep and direct traditional blues. Filling the rhythms were Willie "Big Eyes" Smith (drums) and Calvin "Fuzz" Jones (bass).
At an early age, James Cotton (www.jamescottonsuperharp.com) fell under the trance of Sonny Boy Williamson. Way back in 1954, Cotton was appointed as Muddy Waters harpist. He left the band and struck out as a solo act in 1966. His performance on this night was a celebration of his own long-standing success. Extremely confidant core band-members Mike Williams (guitar), Per Hanson (drums), Noel Neal (bass) and David Maxwell (keys) were further joined by the guitar attack of Rico McFarland and Michael Coleman. Throughout the high-paced, steaming set, Darrell Nulisch belted out the vocals. On many songs such as "The Creeper", Cotton wailed and shrieked his notes out to the point where his harp was on the verge of exploding.
The festival's most historic event was the 50 year reunion between Bo Diddley, Billy Boy Arnold and Jody Williams. They were backed by a stellar band that included Ken Saydak. Jody Williams was a staple on Chess recordings from the early 50s through the mid-60s. By the late 60s Jody had become disillusioned with the music business and quit. After a 30 year hiatus, he has recently returned. His fingers are still nimble as evidenced on "Lucky Lou" where he played short, laser-sharp, exquisite notes. Chi-town born and bred Billy Boy Arnold's career was rejuvenated when the bands of the British Invasion covered his earlier songs such as "Wish You Would". He played his famous hit with Williamson-influenced, articulate harp and soft vocals. Bo Diddley proved he is as radical as ever by adding some rap to his most recognized tunes.
Johnny B. Moore hit the mainstage on June 1. The former Koko Taylor Blues Machine band member fired off blues classics in the traditional electric Chicago blues style. All selections were standards and covers showcasing his dexterity especially on "Got To Help Me". Johnny doesn't come with much stage presence. He is a listener's bluesman.
Dressed in a vivacious yellow outfit, Shemekia Copeland (www.shemekiacopeland.com) took the stage with an omnipotence and tore it apart with "Wild, Wild, Woman". At just 23 years of age, she has the charisma of an entertainer who is twice as old. She performed many songs from her 2 prodigiously popular CDs including a rocking version of "2AM". Throughout the set, her road tested band including explosive guitarist, Arthur Neilson, played at full-throttle power.
She has stated, 'as long as I live, my father's music will live through me. I feel his spirit on stage every night.' Tonight she dedicated "Ghetto Child" to her father Johnny Copeland. It was a highly emotional song which she dramatically performed by using her huge, dynamic voice. She walked away from the microphone and kept pounding the lyrics out with her mighty, unamplified pipes. For many in the awe-struck crowd, Copeland's performance left them feeling completely satisfied and utterly exhausted.
Other artists that appeared at this year's fest included: Phil Guy, Big Bill Morganfield, Fruteland Jackson, John Mooney, Super ChiKan, Paul Oscher, Jelly Roll Kings, W.C. Clark, Louisiana Red and Jimmy Dawkins. Special thanks to Blythe Modrowski.
Visit Portraits In Performance Photography for more pictures from the Chicago Blues Festival.
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