After several years of scheduling conflicts and bad timing, I was finally able to attend my first Chicago Blues Festival. The "Sweet 16" Chicago Blues Festival was held from June 3-6 at beautiful Grant Park in Downtown Chicago and featured four days of excellent blues, good food and a variety of information for any blues fan. The location is ideal for visitors to Chi-Town since there are numerous nearby hotels and activities for the less serious blues fan including museums, sporting events, Lake Michigan and shopping. Personally, I was in Chicago for one "BIG DOSE" of blues music, as provided at the blues festival from Noon to 9:30-10:00 p.m. and at the numerous clubs late into the evening and early morning each of the four days.
To try and describe every event I attended and every great blues performer I saw during my four-day stay in Chicago would be a monumental task. When I was asked by my friends and family about my trip to Chicago, my best comment was that for a blues fan, the Chicago Blues Festival and all of the activities surrounding the event were as close to a "religious" experience as I have ever had in my life. The festival site grew increasingly crowded each day with the blues fanatic and casual blues fan; seniors and children; and listeners and performers. As much as I enjoyed the music ranging from the rural, eccentric sounds of Honeyboy Edwards to the smooth soul sound offered by Bobby "Blue" Bland; I was just as excited at the opportunities that I had to talk to some of the great musicians in attendance about their music and to get some special, coveted autographs that I have wanted for years from people like Otis Rush, Koko Taylor and Louisiana Red. To underscore the magnitude of the event, I should note that I was able to meet and talk to people like Otis Rush, Koko Taylor and former Muddy Waters drummer, Francis Clay and they weren't even scheduled to perform at the festival!
After I arrived in Chicago, I checked into my hotel and made a beeline for the festival which was within walking distance. The first of the many performers that I wanted to see during the four days was 90 year old blues guitarist and piano man Henry Townsend. Imagine how surprised I was to arrive at the Jukejoint stage to find the patriarch of St. Louis blues sitting in the audience resting and listening to the music just like me! What a great start to my first visit to the Chicago Blues Festival! Other highlights of Day One included a special performance by Homesick James and Steve Arvey; a memorial set to Sunnyland Slim that included Johnnie Johnson, Detroit Junior and Henry Townsend (twice in one day!); a fantastic set by The Retrokoopers involving Al Kooper, Jimmy Vivino and Johnnie Johnson (twice in one day, again!). During my walk from the Sunnyland Slim memorial set to the Bandshell, I ran into New York guitarist Slam Allen, who I ended up bumming around and sitting with during the performance by The Retrokoopers. As it turned out, Allen was experiencing his first Chicago Blues Festival too; I ended up meeting him later in the evening when he jammed at Rosa's with Aron Burton and Little Mack Simmons.
Friday started out on an enjoyable note when I got to spend some time backstage talking to many of the performers who cut their musical teeth performing with the late Junior Wells. The Junior Wells tribute was fantastic and included Lee Oskar (subbing for the late Wells); John Primer, Phil Guy, Gene Barge, and all of the current members of Sandra Hall's touring band, The Hoodoomen, just to name a few. At one time during the performance, I looked around and was surprised to find James Cotton standing at my shoulder listening to the music along with me. Later in the afternoon, I attended another tribute; this one to the late Jimmy Reed that included the Twin Cities' own Jimmy "Primetime" Smith; Johnnie Mae Dunson (Primetime's mother and Reed collaborator); and the son of Reed's late guitarist, Eddie Taylor, Edward Taylor, Jr.; just another all-star collaboration at an all-star event! I was also lucky enough to enjoy an afternoon performance by Dave Myers and his New Aces with a guest appearance by Robert Lockwood, Jr. The rest of my evening at the festival included excellent consecutive performances at the Bandshell by Larry McCray, James Cotton and the Kim Wilson Blues Revue. Wilson's performance included assistance from "Blues in the Schools" promoter and blues harpist, Billy Branch and guitarist Duke Robillard. The evening was capped off with visits to the new Chicago Famous Dave's to see Otis Rush and back to Rosa's to see guitar phenom, Melvin Taylor and the Slack Band with eclectic harpist, Sugar Blue.
The third day of the blues festival was a long one for me. It started early in the morning at the Chicago jazz and blues music Mecca, Jazz Record Mart to see an intimate performance by Edward Taylor, Jr. and ended very early Sunday morning at the HotHouse where I listened to an all-star band of Chicago's finest guitarists and guest musicians too numerous to mention in this article. In between these two premier events, I was able to enjoy some excellent Piedmont blues by John Jackson, along with Cephas & Wiggins; the rough-edged, but enjoyable collaboration by Cootie Stark and Neal "Big Daddy" Pattman; and the still strong voice of Ms. Bonnie Lee. After getting a chance to meet Koko Taylor at the Blues Heaven Foundation tent, my day at the festival was complete. It was so hot on Saturday, I went back to the hotel at 4:30 p.m. and took a cool shower to prevent a total (and literal) meltdown!
On the fourth and final day of the 16th Annual Chicago Blues Festival, I amazed myself with my continued stamina, despite my constant immersion into the blues. After going to bed at 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning, I was up at 8:30 a.m. and back to the Jazz Record Mart for the "Blues Brunch" where I was treated to intimate performances by a steady stream of Delmark Records recording artists including Aaron Moore, Johnny B. Moore, Dave Specter, Willie Kent, James Wheeler, Syl Johnson and Lurrie Bell, just to name a few. After fortifying myself with coffee, good blues and an extended conversation with Syl Johnson about music, politics, marriage and real estate; I was off again to Grant Park. Clearly, the final day of the festival was no less exciting and starfilled than the first three days. Beside getting to experience the unique sounds of Othar Turner's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, I was also able to meet and listen to Louisiana Red live for the very first time. The rural "flavors of the day" also included performances by Corey Harris, Guy Davis and a second appearance by Neal Pattman, this time with none other than Taj Mahal. There were several other highlights including performances by long time Chicago musician, Piano "C" Red, who offered his thanks to Mayor John Daley for his commitment to the festival and the City of Chicago; interesting and entertaining "Father and Son" performances by Tabby and Chris Thomas King, as well as, Chris and Joe Beard. However, the highlight for the day from my point of view was the celebration of the late S. P. Leary's birthday by an all-star ensemble that involved Howlin' Wolf alumni, Hubert Sumlin, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Barrelhouse Chuck. The biggest surprise of this performance was the fact that drumkit duties were not handled by recent W.C. Handy Award winner, Willie Smith, but instead by his brother Kenny Smith. To my surprise, as well as to the others in attendance, Willie Smith performed exclusively on vocals and harmonica. Given the fact that Smith had been up into the early morning hours on Sunday performing with the Chicago guitar greats at the HotHouse and that he was scheduled to play drums that evening at the final HotHouse event with Bob Stroger, Detroit Junior and other blues luminaries; the break was understandable and probably welcomed by Smith.
As hard as I tried to take in everything at the Chicago Blues Festival, I just couldn't do it. Despite my full schedule and all of the people that I managed to see during my four day visit, I actually missed several of the events stars including Denise LaSalle, Marcia Ball, Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, Roy Hytower and Larry Garner. I was impressed by the overall lineup at the festival and equally impressed by the fantastic events that went on around the event at the clubs, record stores and even on the streets of the city. The whole experience was one that I will never forget and that I hope to experience again in the new millennium at Chicago Blues Festival 2000!
This review is copyright © 1999 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.