The 2003 Chicago Blues Festival was the 20th anniversary of the fest, the 50th anniversary of Delmark records, the so-called Year of the Blues (More on that in a bit) and the second festival since my darling daughter Emma was born. No pressure. None. None at all.
OK, about the Year of the Blues declaration. I wonder how many politicians who helped make this declaration know the difference between Sonny Boy Williamson I and II or Koko Taylor and Melvin Taylor. How many Muddy, Wolf or Hooker albums do they own? I understand that this is supposed to bring special recognition to the musical genre and there's going to be a huge PBS documentary series and all, but shouldn't every year be the Year of the Blues? It reminds me of the one year the Academy Awards declared a certain year The Year of the Actress. Doesn't sound right, does it? Unless the new releases by Guy Davis, Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials and Billy Flynn skyrocket 1000% in sales, it's the same music stuff, different year.
Anyway, back to the festival. This year's CBF lineup did show how diverse the music can be. You can get your fat white guys in black suits (Usually named Dan or Jim) playing the same ol' Sweet Home Mustang Sally any night of the week. Some of the folks at this year's festival hopefully opened up some eyes, ears and wallets.
There were two performances this year that really caught me. One was Otis Taylor, who I had not seen since four years ago at a festival in Munster, Indiana. His stark songwriting and raw sound (especially on electric banjo and mandolin) is one of the freshest sounds to come out of the blues scene in years. Check out his new album on Telarc, Truth is Not Fiction.
The other band was The Campbell Brothers. These Sacred Steel players (guitar, lap pedal and steel pedal guitars) played with the fire of a Saturday night juke joint and the passion of Sunday morning church. The crowd really dug it and it showed that the so-called Devil's Music and gospel can join hand in hand.
This year was my first time checking out Roy Gaines. He did an solo acoustic and plugged in electric set with his band. The man's guitar playing and showmanship was something to see, as well as his knees whenever his rolled around on the ground with his pant legs rising up. He just released "The First TB Album" and it's pretty darn good.
The city of Chicago was well represented this year, fronted by the 50th anniversary of Delmark Records. This year's main stage had Delmark acts every night. A mass of people were able to check out Willie Kent and the Gents, Big Time Sarah, Jimmy Johnson (with special guest Chico Banks and a cameo from Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater) and a collaboration between Ken Saydak, James Wheeler and Zora Young. Delmark was also in full force, as usual, at the Sunday breakfast at Jazz Record Mart. If you haven't been there yet, what's wrong with you?
Other strong Chicago representation came from the never boring Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials and a 20th anniversary jam featuring Matthew Skoller, Melvin Taylor, Billy Branch, Carl Weathersby, Barrelhouse Chuck, Shirli Dixon, Shirley King, Wayne Baker Brooks, Larry McCray and a cameo by Koko Taylor.
Sunday night closed with a delightfully low-key performance by Mose Allison, followed by the annual well-dressed, soul-blues singer Cicero Blake and an spicy hot sauce closing from Buckwheat Zydeco.
There were only two minor setbacks this year. One was the collaboration between Chuck D, Gene Barge and the players on Muddy Waters Electric Mud album. The performance featured blues mixed with some scratching and a little rap stylin. I understand that rap and hip-hop are the blues of today and everyone's heart was in the right place, but the execution was not that exciting.
When you're performing at the Chicago Blues Festival and you say 40 minutes into your show that it's time to play some blues now, that's probably not the best idea. That's what Bonnie Raitt said during her Saturday night performance. Don't get me wrong, Raitt is an amazing singer/songwriter/guitarist and there's no doubt where her roots are. She's probably the smoothest slide player out there, but she played the same set list that she would at any other venue. Yes, she did "Love Me Like A Man" and she had a duet with Mavis Staples on "Will the Circle Ever Be Broken," but a dip into her old blues songbook, both originals and covers would have been spectacular. Koko Taylor introduced her, but Raitt didn't keep her on stage to duet. So much potential.
Thursday night A.F. (After Fest) - Biscuit & The Mix at B.L.U.E.S. on Halstead. Sammy Fender, Wayne Baker Brooks and bassist Heather Blues sat in. Friday night A.F. - Billy Flynn at Smokedaddy's, The Kinsey Report at Rosa's and Larry McCray at The Kingston Mines. A beer and a brandy later, I fell asleep at 5 a.m. Five hours later, my ringing phone woke me up. It was my buddy, Phil, informing me of the firing of Rick Carlisle, the coach of my beloved Detroit Pistons. I'm one of those poor shmucks that once I'm up, I'm up. I will say this about Phil's move, I was able to have breakfast with Willie Kent and the Gents at Buddy Guy's Legends.
Overall, a strong representation of the blues world as we know it. Hopefully folks bought CDs off the bandstand or immediately afterwards. See you.
Faces of the Chicago Blues Festival 2003 by Portraits In Performance, Chuck Winans.
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