Chicago Blues Festival
@ Grant Park, Chicago, June 5-8, 1997

For photos, go to bottom of review.

Four days long for the first time, this year's Chicago Blues Festival went off without a hitch. All the performers were on stage at their scheduled times (at least the ones I was able to catch) -- no easy task considering the crowds, traffic and multiple stages. This was one of the most well run festivals I have attended. During the day there are 2 main stages (Crossroads and Front Porch), a smaller more intimate acoustic stage (Juke Joint) and the small Best Buy stage in front of their tent. Each evening most of the fans gravitate over to the Petrello Music Shell for the featured headliner shows. It is a shame however that the festival doesn't feature more of the local Chicago blues talent. Some of the best blues performers in the country call Chicago home yet unless you catch them at one of the clubs you don't often find them performing at the festival. This is just my opinion but I think they should feature the likes of Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Eddy Clearwater, Junior Wells, Carey Bell and many of the other blues performers from Chicago every year. With that said, this was still one great week of blues.

The weekend started on Wednesday for me. I arrived a day early and spent the first night at the two Blue Chicago clubs on Clark. The band Willie Kent and the Gents with female singer Peaches was playing at the smaller Clark & Ohio club with Michael Coleman and the Backbreakers at the Clark & Superior club just a few blocks north. Peaches was a dead ringer for Koko Taylor on vocals with her rendition of Wang Dang Doodle. Michael Coleman plays an excellent and funky blues guitar and was joined by singer Karen Carroll who has that deep, powerful voice and knows how to grab the audience's attention.

The Festival events kicked off Thursday afternoon at 3 PM with Shirley King on the Crossroads stage. Shirley and her earthy blues vocals were joined by her Chicago Blues Band featuring Greg Buetow on keyboards, Phil Armetta on guitar, Sandi Greco on drums and Lindell Thurmond on bass. This band really knows how to bring out the best in King with some great guitar playing by Armetta and some funky bass by Thurmond. Shirley was down off the stage getting right into the thick of things as she is accustomed to do, putting on another entertaining show. After a brief talk with Shirley after her set, we made plans to meet up later that night at House of Blues. We were then off to the Juke Joint stage to catch guitar player Dave Myers and Harmonica Hinds and then to the Front Porch stage to see soul singer Charles Wilson with Sister Monnica. Dave Myers along with brother Louis Myers, Fred Below and Junior Wells formed The Aces in the 50's. This was the band Little Walter swapped places with Junior Wells when Junior joined Muddy Waters. This was a great weather day with moderate crowds and a fun start to a wonderful weekend of blues music in the park.

The Petrello Band Shell performances that night featured Roy Hytower "The Root Doctor" and his very good guitar playing. Roy replaced Mighty Joe Young in the Otis Rush band in the 60's and has been playing the south side Chicago clubs ever since. On alto sax he had the Sax Preacher who was just a remarkable player.

Then one of the highlights of the weekend - Buddy Guy! Buddy played for 90 minutes and added his usual comments that if it wasn't for the requirements to stop at 9 he would play all night! The huge crowd just loved it. Buddy, performing in front of his home town crowd, was hot! He put on one of his electrifying performances with lots of walking about the stage, posturing and exhibiting his great facial expressions, not to mention his guitar and voice. At one point he said "let me hear you Chicago" and after a thunderous response he told the band to bring it down a little, then said "I'm going to play something so funky you can smell it" as he launched into Muddy's Hoochie Coochi Man. Tony Z on piano was stellar as usual and Ray Killer Allison on drums was an added treat. I looked back at one point and saw someone with a cell phone held up to the music (obviously letting a friend listen in on the great sound). This was a night to remember -- with the beautiful Chicago skyline lit up in the background, the sea of blues fans in the seats and the thousands beyond the far fence, the welcome breeze off Lake Michigan and Buddy Guy on stage singing the blues!

The music ends at 9 PM each night at the festival but the night is just beginning. Chicago, on any regular weekend, has more blues performances going on in the myriad blues clubs around town than any blues festival anywhere else in the world. This weekend was even more packed because of the festival with many clubs featuring more than one band on the same night. I made a quick trip over to Buddy Guy's Legends (a few blocks south from Grant Park) to catch Joanna Connor for one set. Unless you leave the festival early you can expect to wait in line at any of the blues clubs during festival weekend for at least a set. Connor is one fine guitar player -- the female counter part to Buddy Guy with an explosive slide technique. I then listened to the first few songs from Chubby Carrier and was off to the House Of Blues to meet up with Shirley King.

When we arrived at the House of Blues, Casey Jones was playing in the downstairs stage with two of King's band members, Phil on guitar and Lindell on bass with Walter Scott on guitar (Buddy Scott's brother). Walter played a great version of Guitar Slim's The Things That I Used To Do. Casey Jones has a great voice and did a rousing rendition of the Sam Cooke song, Bring It On Home To Me. We then went up stairs to the main stage looking for Shirley and found Corey Stevens in the middle of his performance playing some spirited blues/rock guitar. They were handing out copies of a single from his new album, Road To Zen at the bar with each drink. We found Shirley out dancing and dragged her downstairs where it was a little quieter so we could talk. On our way down we met up with Junior Wells who was just arriving for his midnight show. I was able to get a few great pictures of Junior mugging with my daughter.

Friday at lunch we were back at the House of Blues to hear Jimmie Lee Robinson who performs during the lunch hour during the week and calls the HOB his second home. He has been performing there since it opened last fall. See the University of the Blues review in this issue when he performed in Minneapolis. On the way back to the festival we passed quite a few street musicians including one band called The Unknown Blues Band who were playing some good blues music. The crowds were starting to arrive and the festive spirit was everywhere. There was one drummer on the street that was later joined by several other drummers. That's all, just the drums! This one guy must have played the drums straight through the whole day and we saw him at the same place the rest of the weekend - talk about being in shape or at least some blisters!

Back at the festival we listened to Fernando Jones with his Blues Kids of America band at the Front Porch stage before heading over to the Crossroads stage for an afternoon of Earwig Record performers. Detroit Junior played a poignant piano set in the memory of Lovie Lee who died last month and was scheduled to perform at the festival. Lil' Ed and Dave Weld were then up for a duo with two guitars and Lil' Ed adding the kick drums to keep the rhythm. I then ran over to the Juke Joint stage to catch Syl Johnson who was talking about his early experiences with Magic Sam and how Syl taught Magic Sam some blues guitar when they were neighbors growing up on the south side of Chicago. He couldn't do any jumping around, as he usually does, while sitting at the small Juke Joint stage, I guess he was saving himself for the main stage later that night.

On my way back to the Crossroads stage I saw Charlie Musselwhite doing a solo acoustic set at the Best Buy stage. What a great opportunity to listen to him play guitar and harmonica is such a casual setting. The Aron Burton band with Aron on bass and Larry Burton on guitar were tearing up the place with great Chicago blues back at the Crossroads stage. Aron was part of the Ice Breakers band (Albert Collins). On drums was Dave Jefferson who played with Albert King for 16 years. Next on stage was one of the surprise highlights of the festival. Sam Carr and Frank Frost took the stage with Johnny B. Moore on guitar and Willie Kent on bass along with guitarist Dave Riley. Frank Frost plays harmonica from the old school and was just remarkable. He has such a great sound and I thoroughly enjoyed their set. Frank Frost and Sam Carr played for years with Robert Nighthawk and recently were part of the Jelly Roll Kings.

I was able to catch part of Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards set over at the Front Porch stage. One of the last links to the early days of Robert Johnson, Honeyboy is as spry as ever. Honeyboy was accompanied by a friend on washboard and harmonica and was playing in his raw, delta style and having a grand time with the relaxed crowd enjoying his show out on the grass. The Front Porch stage is situated on a nice grassy area for the fans to sit. The Crossroads stage is at the end of one of the streets that run through Grant Park and you either have to stand or arrive early to get one of the benches set up on the asphalt.

Now back at the Crossroads for another special treat. Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones from Detroit was putting on a great show with a very fine backing band. He was doing his little dance steps and shaking his hips on stage while playing a mean harmonica. Later he picked up his Gibson guitar and displayed some gritty blues licks that kept the fans shouting for more.

Friday night at the main stage we were treated to the Johnson "blues boys" show. The only way to get on stage that night was if your last name was Johnson! Syl Johnson started off the evening with guitar, harmonica and funk singing his hit Take Me To The River. 18 Year old daughter Syleena joined Syl for several songs. He also did his 1967 million seller hit Different Strokes (this was from the sock-it-to me era of Laugh In).

Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson was on next. He was Muddy Water's guitar player throughout most of the 70's. He recently was the first blues performer to play in China. He did a great instrumental of Have Mercy on Me and a nice R&B Temptations song, The Way You Do the Things You Do. Part of the fun of this festival was the crowd, especially the ones who were really getting into the spirit of the music - with dancing in the isles - there were some pretty colorful and interesting crowd performers.

Jimmy Johnson, Syl's brother closed out the night at the Band Shell. Looking and playing pretty good for being in his 70's! Throughout the 60's he played in R&B groups with his brother Syl and during the 70's he toured and recorded with Jimmy Dawkins and Otis Rush. Know as the barroom preacher, Jimmy Johnson's guitar work is infused with gritty blues and imaginative jazz and funk.

Friday night after the festival I was able to see Charlie Musselwhite and John Mayall at the House of Blues. The new HOB's in Chicago is a sight to behold. It has a small stage downstairs with bar and restaurant for lunch and evening dining and music. Upstairs is the grand ballroom with ample dance floor and bars on both sides. A huge stage and several levels of balcony box seats. This was a pretty spectacular place! Since I missed Charlie Musselwhite when he was in Minneapolis on Wednesday I was able to catch him here. Musselwhite's band was outstanding with a guitar player (I didn't catch his name) that played lead guitar that was so clean and crystal clear. He had one solo that was spellbinding that left the audience in a trance. At another point Charlie and the guitar player were playing a duo with harmonica and guitar in unison that was fun to hear. The band even did a Brazilian blues song that was pretty nice.

John Mayall started out his show on keyboards then switched to harmonica, then back to keyboards, then he was playing both together. Mayall, famous for being one of the modern interpreters of the blues in England in the early 60's, sounded just like he did 30 years ago. It was a good show and brought back a lot of memories from that time period.

Saturday morning we headed over to the Jazz Record Mart on Wabash for an in store concert with local Chicago blues guitar player Eddie King. He was looking sharp and playing some mean blues guitar. He is definitely one guitar player I want to see more of. I was also able to meet some of the blues fans I had been talking to over the internet. It was like a reunion, even though I hadn't actually met these people before except via email.

Saturday's weather was overcast with intermittent rain that didn't seem to dampen any spirits even with the occasional downpour. Most of the crowd came prepared with ponchos and umbrellas and even those without didn't seem to mind.

Saturday at the Front Porch stage started out with veteran bluesman Homesick James backed by Larry Burton on guitar, Aron Burton on Bass and Lester Davenport on Harmonica. James was fun to watch. He was giving the band hell right from the start shouting out things like "pump it up, pump it up!" He may not be at his peak as a performer but still put on an enjoyable performance. At the Crossroads stage Maurice John Vaughn was backing the Detroit singer Zoom. She really got to the audience with her booming voice and flashy stage presence as she belted out the song Let The Good Times Roll. As an introduction to her song Ready For The Blues she said "life is going to kick you in the behind anyway, so you might as well be happy." Then in response to a question she often gets about why she does this next old song so often she said, "because the men like it and the women want it." She then had a great time with the audience as she sang Meet With Your Black Drawers On.

Back at the Front Porch stage we got to see Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. What a treat this was. I had never seen Dan perform before and found him to be such a down to earth performer. He sang many of the hit songs he wrote during 60's like The Dark End of the Street. He wrote or co-wrote some monster soul hits during that time including Do Right Woman, I'm Your Puppet, Sweet Inspiration, and Cry Like A Baby.

Another highlight was watching Robert Ealey and U.P. Wilson at the Crossroads stage. From Ft. Worth, Texas, Ealey, all dressed in black and very stately looking on stage delivered some great southern singing that mixes soul, blues and Texas country blues. His companion on this tour, U.P. Wilson put on an electrifying display of guitarmanship. He is a very good player, very animated on stage and put on a spectacular performance of playing his guitar with just his left hand while he had it sitting on top of amp. The crowd was going wild and just ate it up!

We caught a few songs from soul singer Tommy McCrackin at the Front Porch stage on our way over to the Petrello band shell for the evenings main events. When we arrived the Mighty Joe Young blues band was really cooking with some hard pounding blues. They were backing special guest Jimmy Dawkins. Dawkins short set was just superb with some of his great guitar playing. Cicero Blake, with a soul voice that just won't quite, sang one number before Mighty Joe Young came on stage. Mighty Joe, one of the instrumental guitar players during the 60's in Chicago, is not able to play his guitar any longer due to some surgery about 10 years ago, but his voice is stronger than ever. He is touring on the successful release of his new CD, Mighty Man.

J. Blackfoot, another soul singer, was on next. What a flashy showman. He was in a sweat after only a few minutes from romping around the stage. He was running and jumping all over the place. He just wouldn't stay still for a moment. We left after this set and were not able to catch Rufus Thomas in order to get over to the House Of Blues for the Otis Rush show. And were glad we did! Carey Bell opened with his deep toned harmonica sounds. He came on strong doing some jumps and a little dance shuffle. Bell plays that classic 1950's harmonica blues. When he pulls out his chromatic harmonica it sounds like he is playing the keyboards. He held one extended note for soooooo long, "I" was out of breath! At one point he had his remote mike and was out on the dance floor playing for the audience. He was mobbed at this point by all his fans.

See the Otis Rush review in the Blues On Stage section of this issue.

Wanting to savor the music of Otis Rush I decided to skip the midnight show at Legends with Coco Montoya. I also had an early day scheduled for Sunday so needed some rest. The Jazz Record Mart featured a Sunday brunch and in store show with Willie Kent and the Gents. Willie Davis, guitar player with Kent, plays some great raw Chicago blues guitar in a style that it is hard to get enough of. Both Karen Carroll and Bonnie Lee joined the band for some hard core blues singing. In the store that morning were Johnny B. Moore, who played later, Jimmie Lee Robinson and Frank Scott. Frank Scott did some of the first early recordings of Albert Collins in the early days in Texas. He also was part of the Every Hour Blues Boys along with Jimmie Lee Robinson and a young Freddy King (before he changed his spelling to Freddie) in the early 50's. What a way to start the day.

Back at the Festival I was able to see Otha Turner and his fife band perform his call to the festival ritual. He opened the festival each day starting on Friday and this 80+ year old has become a tradition at the Chicago Blues Festival. Back stage at the Front Porch I was able to chat a little with Texan Henry Qualls. He is one amusing character with a great sense of humor and an even better country blues guitarist in the mold of Lightin' Hopkins and Fred McDowell. He plays a raw, elemental, powerful guitar. His all-to-short set was another of those choice experiences from the festival. His lap slide guitar, played with a small lemon extract bottle was just remarkable. In fact, I can still hear his slide playing on Amazing Grace and Will the Circle Be Unbroken, they were so good. This was his first trip to Chicago and he was joined on stage by partner Hash Brown, an accomplished guitarist in his own right.

Debbie Davies, at the Crossroads stage, played guitar with Albert Collins before his death a few years ago, confirmed what I had heard about her playing. She is one gutsy guitar player that can hold her own with anyone! With an easy-to-listen-to voice and some great facial expressions to go along with her fiery guitar playing she was heating up the beautiful day. Sunday's weather was near perfect with a clear blue sky and warm temperatures.

I had to catch an early flight so was only able to see Del Rey back at the Front Porch stage perform her tribute to Memphis Minnie. She played some very nice steel guitar. Rory Block was just getting ready for her set when it was time say good-bye to another great weekend of blues in Chicago.

  • Go to Chuck Winan's photos! - Buddy Guy, Jimmy Dawkins, Sly Johnson, Jimmy Johnson, Roy Hytower, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, Shirley King and kids, Rufus Thomas, Big Bo, Little Whitt.

Mailbox E-mail Ray Stiles at:

Table of Contents:
Return To Home Page | Calendar | Spotlight | Live Reviews | New Reviews | Photo Gallery
CD Reviews | New CD Releases | Blues Links | Blues Bios | Blues Artists | Blues Clubs | Blues Jams

Free web pages from GeoCities

Copyright © 1997 by Ray M. Stiles. All rights reserved.