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"Blues On The Fox" Blues Festival
An Overview & Photography
Aurora, IL, June 13,1998
by Chuck Winans
(Click on the links found in the body of the review to view the pictures of the artists)

Robert Lockwood Jr.
Blues On The Fox, 6/13/98
Photo © 1998 by Chuck Winans.
All rights reserved
I was at the Blues On The Fox Festival in Aurora on Saturday, June 13, shooting shows at all the stages. This is one VERY cool festival. One day, four stages, about 20 acts, superbly organized by the Fox Valley Blues Society. It's small, manageable, held right on the streets of downtown Aurora, which has a history with blues music that almost outdates Chicago.

Aurora, Illinois is situated some 45 miles straight west of Chicago, off Interstate 88, the Illinois Tollway. In the 1930's, blues artists from Chicago recorded on the 16th floor of the tallest building in town, then the Leland Hotel. It wasn't an official recording studio, but a large ballroom with great acoustics, where many of the original Bluebird recordings were done. Tampa Red, John Lee (Sonny Boy 1)Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Henry Townsend, Speckled Red, Walter Davis, Yank Rachell and many others recorded in this building.

RCA finally built a recording studio in Chicago in 1940. After that, most recordings in Aurora ceased. Until then, the ballroom on the 16th floor Leland Hotel was a VERY active place for recording the slowly changing urban blues sounds of the 30's. Williamson recorded over 120 sides for RCA and Bluebird during his tenure with the label, 44 of them in 1937-38, in Aurora, including the original "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl". Tampa Red recorded 230 sides for Bluebird in nine years, many in Aurora.

The members of the Fox Valley Blues Society are well aware of their special connection to the roots of urban blues which sprang from the recording at the Leland Hotel. The building stand today, although no longer in use as a hotel, and the ballroom on the 16th floor where all the historic recordings were done still exists. During last year's Blues On The Fox festival, the society's first, there was a plaque dedication in the old Leland Hotel, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the original Bluebird recordings. Among those in attendance at the dedication was T.W. Utley, Sonny Boy Williamson's half-brother. And the ballroom of the old hotel was in use for recording as recently as 1997, when Earwig Records producer Michael Frank brought David "Honeyboy" Edwards to Aurora to record Edwards' landmark CD, "The Blues Don't Owe Me Nothing". The decision to record in Aurora was a conscious nod to the great bluesmen who recorded there in the 1930's, when Honeyboy Edwards' career was just beginning. Michael Frank and others who have been to the 16th floor of the Leland recently tell me that it looks much the same as it did 60 years ago.

Frank Frost & Sam Carr together,
posed on the street after their set
Photo © 1998 by Chuck Winans.
All rights reserved
This year's second blues festival offering from the Fox Valley Blues Society showed any blues fan in attendance how passionately dedicated the society is to not only paying homage to the blues roots in Aurora, but that they also have an eye on the future. The Heritage Stage (one of four), featured John Brim, Snooky Pryor, Sam Carr & Frank Frost (accompanied by Johnny B. Moore on guitar), and Robert Lockwood, Jr. among others. This stage was situated on the street right beside the old Leland hotel, a building that looks none the worse for wear, and the oldest building in town.

The festival's Bluebird Stage kicked off at 2pm and featured (in this order) Carl Weathersby, Jimmy Johnson, Sugar Blue and, finally, The Kinsey Report at 8pm. This stage was situated in the middle of a bridge overlooking the Fox River, and the lineup clearly reflected the theme of "The Blues In The Present". A third stage, sponsored by the Fox Valley Blues Society itself, was a "competition" stage. The Society annually sponsors a local blues band in Memphis for The Blues Foundation's annual International Blues Talent competition. In 1996, they sponsored The Matthew Skollar Band, which placed third. Last year, Pistol Pete finished fifth. This year competition duties will fall to the Joe Moss Band.

A second new stage this year was the "Blues In The Schools" stage, with Fruteland Jackson (1997's Blues Foundation "Keeping The Blues Alive" Award-winner for Education) and Shirley King (daughter of B.B.), both of whom are very active in Blues In The Schools programming. Jackson appeared to be doing his usual in-school education show, which was good since the stage was set up especially for children. Shirley King delivered a terrific set, bringing about 15 kids from a local school with her to the stage.

More festivals, large and small, are dedicating entire stages or full days of their programming to the Blues In The Schools effort, recognizing that young people are the future of the music, and that there is less of a point to keeping the blues alive without grabbing the interest of grammar school-aged children. It was heartwarming to watch Fruteland Jackson perform his educational show for at least 50 kids, all under the age of 12. There were a lot of adults who learned something, too!

Jimmy Johnson
Photo © 1998 by Chuck Winans.
All rights reserved
While the Blues On The Fox Festival itself is a one-day event, there are blues activities covering the entire weekend in Aurora. The night before the festival, Lonnie Brooks performed a concert in the beautiful Paramount Theatre, a 2,600-seat venue which has been meticulously restored to it's exact look and feel from when it was built in the 1920's. Many small towns as well as large urban areas contain theaters like the Paramount, some of which are in various states of disrepair and use. The Paramount, fortunately, is one of those which have been saved, and is in continuous use as an arts center.

The day after the festival, Walter Payton's Roundhouse (a restaurant/nightclub owned by the former NFL running back for the Chicago Bears) and Payton himself hosted the "Sweetness 10K and 5k Runs", starting at 8AM Sunday. The blues-rock band Chicago Express provided music throughout the morning. On Thursday, June 11, Aurora University hosted a two-day "blues camp", during which participants learned guitar and harmonica techniques from some of the Midwest’s top blues musicians and educators.

All this happens in the little city of Aurora, Illinois...steeped and knowledgeable in blues roots and traditions. One might normally look at this relatively small community and wonder what on earth it could ever have to do with the birth of the gritty, urban Chicago blues sounds of today. But the roots are there, and they are undeniable. The best part is that, with the very active Fox Valley Blues Society at the forefront, Aurora has neither forgotten nor forsaken the roots of the music we love, and is doing everything it can to preserve, protect and promote this unique part of American popular culture.

KUDOS to Fox Valley Blues Society president Mark Baum and all its hardworking members and volunteers for making this very cool little festival possible. From hospitality to the attentiveness with which they deal with blues fans and media, every base was covered, and covered WELL.

While larger, high-profile, week-long blues festivals dominate the landscape across North America each summer, this small, single-day, shining jewel on the blues scene in the far western suburbs of Chicago holds something of interest for everyone. Hard to believe from the outside looking in that this was only the second annual Blues On The Fox Festival. This event, hopefully, will continue to thrive and grow in years to come.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in the blues in northern Illinois, western Indiana or southern Wisconsin join the Fox Valley Blues Society. It's active, and they know their stuff.

Information about the Fox Valley Blues Society, a Blues Foundation affiliated member, can be obtained by writing the Fox Valley Blues Society, P.O. Box 797, Oswego, Illinois, 60543. Voice Mail: (630) 585-3955.

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This review is copyright © 1998 by Chuck Winans, all rights reserved.

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