The theme of this year's Chicago Blues Festival is "Rollin' Up the River: Celebrating the Blues With a Musical Journey Up the Mississippi." The Mississippi River doesn't come anywhere near Chicago, of course, but in its initial diaspora the blues spread from south to north, as though moving upstream—following a pattern similar to that of the Great Migration of African-Americans in the early and mid-20th century.
Are there enough active blues artists who reflect this history to fill a festival, though? Indeed there are—and they're not all senior citizens or oldies acts, though you might not guess that from looking at this year's lineup. The only Petrillo act who still makes music that most African-American blues fans would consider contemporary is probably Friday headliner Bobby Rush, and he turns 80 in November. Otis Clay and Uvee Hayes (who play Saturday) also made some noise on the soul-blues circuit a few years ago with "Steal Away to the Hideaway," a remake of the 1977 Luther Ingram hit.
But that doesn't mean this year's Blues Fest is full of moldy figs. Irma Thomas, who performs just before Rush on Friday, is as vibrant and riveting as she was when she recorded her best-loved material in the 60s; the Soul Queen of New Orleans may no longer be a force on the mainstream R&B charts, but she's updated her sound to reflect modern-day pop aesthetics. Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice (who play Saturday) not only helped birth the deep-soul era in the 60s but also make it feel brand-new today—their timeless songs should bristle with immediacy on the Petrillo stage. And the multigenerational crew joining veteran James Cotton for Sunday night's finale ought to persuade at least a few skeptics of the long-term viability of a living blues heritage.
The side-stage lineups aren't at their strongest this year, but quite a bit of the talent there is worth your attention. Down-home stalwarts Terry "Harmonica" Bean, Bill "Howlin Madd" Perry, and Lightnin' Malcolm pack powerful punches, and Nellie "Tiger" Travis and Vickie Baker draw crowds on the same southern circuit where Bobby Rush reigns. Arkansas-born Larry McCray is as adept with hard-rocking swamp blues as he is with his own high-energy updates of 12-bar chestnuts. John Primer, an alumnus of the Muddy Waters and Magic Slim bands, carries a torch for the Mississippi-to-Chicago roots of the blues, while Chicagoan Lurrie Bell immerses himself in the postwar style with an intensity that makes him sound like he's channeling the ancestors.
For the first time the Blues Fest includes a concert in Millennium Park (with Shemekia Copeland on Thursday night), but once it moves back to its customary grounds in Grant Park on Friday, its physical layout should look familiar to anyone who's attended in recent years. The only significant change is that the Crossroads Stage, which features mostly electric blues, has moved to a spot near the rose garden that's south of Jackson and west of Lake Shore Drive.
The Petrillo Music Shell, where most of the bigger names play, is just northeast of Columbus and Jackson. The Front Porch Stage, which features mostly acoustic artists and smaller bands, is on the lawn south of Jackson and east of Columbus. The Mississippi Juke Joint, which leans toward rootsier acts (and has also become the site for panel discussions since the Route 66 Roadhouse tent was retired), is south on Columbus near Balbo, just east of the Lincoln statue. On Columbus between Jackson and Monroe, you'll find tents set up by nonprofit organizations that support the blues, including the Koko Taylor Celebrity Aid Foundation, the Windy City Blues Society, and Fernando Jones's Blues Kids Foundation. Blues Kids and the Windy City Blues Society will present live music Friday through Sunday. All events are free. —DW
6:30 PM Fernando Jones's Blues Kids of America
7:10 PM Jamiah on Fire & the Red Machine
8 PM Shemekia Copeland with special guest Quinn Sullivan Across her 15-year career, Shemekia Copeland has evolved into an eclectic stylist, incorporating elements of pop, alt-country, and roadhouse rock into the 12-bar blues she learned from her father, late guitarist Johnny Copeland. The 34-year-old singer has also learned to draw from a reservoir of emotion that's both wide and deep: on her latest CD, 33 1/3 (Telarc), she takes on vulnerability, despair, erotic heat, and righteous outrage, all without succumbing to overkill or bathos. She'll be joined by 14-year-old Quinn Sullivan, the latest in a seemingly endless succession of child guitar prodigies (most of them white) who've been marketed as the future of the blues. He's got furious chops—don't they all?—but to paraphrase Denise LaSalle, his music mostly sounds like someone has sent a boy to do a man-size job. —DW
11:15 AM Dented Trucks
12:45 PM Toronzo Cannon
2:30 PM Mississippi Heat
4:15 PM Kevin Purcell & the Nightburners
11:30 AM Panel discussion about the Mississippi Blues Trail with Alex Thomas, Jim O'Neal, and Scott Barretta
12:45 PM Terry "Harmonica" Bean
1:45 PM Lightnin' Malcolm Mississippi guitarist and singer Lightnin' Malcolm plays the kind of rugged, rustic electric blues that conjures up images of octogenarians with battered old guitars so well-loved the wood is worn bare in patches. He doesn't quite fit that template—for one thing, he's a few decades from his 80s—but he sure can make his ax wail. Most of the stripped-down cuts on the new Rough Out There (Ruf) rely on his gritty, slightly ramshackle guitar work and unvarnished singing, and even when he flirts fruitlessly with relatively modern pop styles—including hip-hop on album closer "How Blessed You Are"—those fundamental skills rescue the music. —LG
3 PM Bill "Howlin Madd" Perry
4:30 PM John Primer & the Real Deal Blues Band At a recent all-star tribute to the late Magic Slim at Mayne Stage, no one better captured the pulverizing intensity the big man wielded in his heyday than Chicago's John Primer. And why wouldn't he? The Mississippi native spent more than a decade gigging alongside Slim as a Teardrop, during which time the two of them developed an uncanny flair for sizzling guitar interplay. Now Primer is the old hand in his own Real Deal Band, his slashing fretwork (single-string and slide) as impeccable as his authoritative vocals. Also Thu 6/6 at SPACE and tonight at Buddy Guy's Legends. —BD
6 PM Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith blues jam
Noon Blues in the Schools with Stone Academy students, Eric Noden, and Katherine Davis
1:30 PM Donna Herula and Tony Nardiello
3 PM Jimmy Burns Band Jimmy Burns got his start in doo-wop, recording with the Medallionaires in the late 50s, then gravitated to soul—his 60s and 70s singles for labels such as USA, Minit, Tip Top, and Erica have become collectors' items. He took some time off to raise his family, and when he returned to music in the 90s, it was as a bluesman. Both on his albums (most of which have been released by Delmark) and onstage, Burns brings a graceful elan to his eclecticism, tying together influences from blues, soul, and pop with his understated but evocative guitar and velvet-edged vocals. Also tonight at Buddy Guy's Legends. —DW
4:30 PM Cicero Blake Cicero Blake does his thing at the intersection of blues and soul. The assured singer debuted on Chicago's doo-wop scene in the mid-50s, then made a string of fine but unheralded 60s R&B singles for tiny local labels that seldom promoted them properly. In the late 70s, when he segued into blues with the salacious "Dip My Dipper," Blake found the 12-bar form a perfect fit for his burnished pipes—and that's stayed true to this day. —BD
6 PM Earnest "Guitar" Roy
7:05 PM Irma Thomas Most female blues singers opt for badass onstage personas, but not Irma Thomas: she radiates uplifting warmth and infinite charm. The Soul Queen of New Orleans isn't your typical blues woman; R&B remains her primary musical idiom. She debuted in 1960 with the saucy "Don't Mess With My Man," shortly before she began working with fellow New Orleans hit maker Allen Toussaint as her producer. Toussaint wasn't involved with her biggest seller, which Thomas wrote herself: the wistful ballad "Wish Someone Would Care" was cut in LA in 1964 and arranged in majestic uptown-soul style (the Stones famously covered her rendition of "Time Is on My Side" from that same year). Thomas isn't one to live in the past, though: on her mature and polished recent albums for Rounder, she embraces fresh material sometimes only tangentially related to her Crescent City roots. —BD
8:30 PM Bobby Rush Bobby Rush is justly legendary (or perhaps notorious) for his stage show, which typically includes physical antics that belie his 79 years, a seemingly bottomless well of jokes, skits, puns, and bon mots, and scantily clad dancing girls. But he's also a formidable recording artist, and this year's Down in Louisiana (Thirty Tigers) is one of his strongest albums in ages. His voice is somewhat thicker than it used to be, but the distinctive Rush "folk funk" style remains intact: he can convey lasciviousness, jubilance, sincerity, and irreverence with easy aplomb, and his storytelling is as witty and unpredictable as anything in the blues. —DW
11:15 AM Bobby "Slim" James In the 60s Bobby James was a journeyman soul singer—his best-known single is 1968's "I Really Love You," cut for Karol—but like many aging soul men, in the 70s he gravitated toward the blues. He's been a south- and west-side mainstay for almost 40 years, and his recordings on the Chicago-based Annie G. label have been well received. (He's gone by "Slim" since portraying a character of that name in an early-90s stage production called If the Blues Was a Dolla.) James still sings with the dexterity and richness of a soul crooner; onstage his guitar work is understated (and sometimes underamplified), but it fits his style, which emphasizes carefully honed lyrics and eloquent stories, often told largely through voicecraft. —DW
12:45 PM Michael Coleman & the New Backbreakers
2:30 PM Peaches & the Groove Shakers
4:15 PM Mike Avery & West Side Soul
11:30 AM Panel discussion commemorating Pinetop Perkins's 100th birthday with Pat Morgan, Barrelhouse Chuck, and Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith
1 PM Peterson Brothers Band
2:30 PM Eddie Taylor Jr.
4 PM Castro Coleman I could hardly be more of an outsider to gospel (I mean, I'm Jewish), so I doubt that the things I find appealing about Mississippi gospel guitarist and singer Castro Coleman are the ones he'd want me to. His fashion sense splits the difference between classy and goofy—in some of his press photos his look could be described as "referee evening wear"—and to my ears at least his fusion of slinky jams and earnest praise is as confounding as it is endearing. Take "Jesus Is Real," from the recent album The Favor Factor (Malaco/4winds): it transforms D'Angelo's sultry "Untitled" into a sincere ballad about Jesus that slips in a few jabs at the arrogance of scientists. Coleman is a dedicated multitasker whose projects include backing heavy hitter Melvin Williams, fronting a soulful combo called Castro Coleman & Highly Favored, and releasing R&B-indebted jams as Cat Cole; no matter the setting, he proselytizes like he knows the Rapture is next week. —LG
5:30 PM Tribute to Howlin' Wolf featuring Eddie Shaw and friends
Noon Liz Mandeville & the Blue Points
1:30 PM Khalif Wailin' Walter
3 PM Holle Thee Maxwell
4:30 PM Larry McCray Though a stiff shot of rock fuels his music, Larry McCray plays "blues" instead of "blooze"—even his most bombastic leads are deft and imaginative, and he doesn't try to pass off amplification or distortion as emotional sincerity. McCray's taut, muscular vocals are capable of disarming tenderness, and he's an eloquent lyricist, as he proves on "Run" (from his self-titled 2007 CD on Magnolia), a harrowing story of love in the face of the apocalypse. He's equally gifted as an interpreter—his reading of Warren Haynes's swamp-gospel power ballad "Soulshine" on 1993's Delta Hurricane (Pointblank) may well be the definitive version of the song. —DW
5 PM Ronnie Baker Brooks
6:30 PM Otis Clay & the Platinum Band featuring Uvee Hayes Only a few singers rival the raspy-voiced Otis Clay for longevity on the Chicago soul scene. Like so many R&B singers he got his start in the church, working in a cappella outfits like the Sensational Nightingales before turning secular at One-derful Records, where he cut his immortal "That's How It Is" in 1967. He went on to join Hi Records in the 70s and was sustained by cult stardom in Japan as tastes for old-school soul were subsumed by disco. His recent album Truth Is (Echo) includes a vintage horn section arranged by Tom Tom Washington, and while Clay's range has diminished, his mastery of phrasing hasn't. —PM
8:10 PM The Memphis Soul Revue starring the Bar-Kays with Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice Though associated with the Memphis soul scene of the 60s and 70s, Eddie Floyd and Mack Rice started out together in Detroit in a mid-50s doo-wop group called the Falcons. They later made their separate ways to Stax Records, and Floyd topped the R&B charts in 1966 with the pile-driving "Knock on Wood," which he cowrote. Rice hit the Stax scene in '67, a couple years after writing and waxing the original "Mustang Sally"; there he coauthored the Staple Singers' immortal "Respect Yourself." More than 40 years later, Floyd and Rice still have their gritty, soul-steeped voices, and tonight they're backed by a groove-heavy Memphis band. Most of the first Bar-Kays lineup died in the horrific '67 plane crash that killed Otis Redding, but the surviving members—bassist James Alexander and trumpeter Ben Cauley—rebuilt the band, which would go on to become one of the hottest funk juggernauts of the 1970s. —BD
11:15 AM Willie Buck
12:45 PM Dave Weld & the Imperial Flames
2:30 PM Grana' Louise & Troublemaker Grana' Louise can declaim with the best of them (and the loudest of them), but what sets her apart from standard-issue bad-mama blues belters is the attention she pays to craft. Even at her most flamboyant, she uses her expressive phrasing and impressive range— she can modulate seamlessly from a purr to a roar—to create voices and characters as diverse as the feelings she evokes. And as brazenly as she celebrates lust and proclaims her independence, she also acknowledges that part of what underlies her signifying is vulnerability and a search for solace. Louise also performs as part of the play A Blues Seance: Songs of Fallen Women at the Comedy Bar from Thu 6/6 through Sat 6/8. —DW
4:15 PM Linsey Alexander Blues Band
11:30 AM Panel discussion on Delmark Records' 60th anniversary with Bob Koester and Steve Wagner
12:30 PM Nellie "Tiger" Travis Most people considered Nellie Travis a straightforward blues singer until 2005, when her slickly produced album Wanna Be With You (Da-Man) became a radio and club hit on the southern soul-blues circuit—and her taut, quivering vibrato, with its gospel-powered emotional thrust, fits both styles well. On a soul-blues ballad such as "Don't Talk to Me," from 2008's I'm a Woman (CDS), she fuses desire and wounded bitterness with almost overwhelming intensity, and much of the material on 2011's I'm Going Out Tonight (Benevolent Blues) showcases her prowess in a rootsier 12-bar sound. —DW
2 PM Vickie Baker
3:30 PM Big Time Sarah with the Mike Wheeler Blues Band
5 PM Jarekus Singleton
6:30 PM Blues jam session with Jarekus Singleton
Noon Fruteland Jackson
1 PM Lurrie Bell's Chicago Blues Band Lurrie Bell's 2012 acoustic gospel album, The Devil Ain't Got No Music (Aria BG), won him a passel of new folk-loving fans, but he remains an unreconstructed Chicago bluesman at heart. His guitar leads blend dexterity and rawness, alternately graceful and as ragged as barbed wire; his tone is sometimes show-lounge smooth, sometimes hawk-squall fierce. Bell's focus on the postwar tradition can limit his onstage repertoire, but such are his emotional commitment and improvisational skill that he can easily clear that hurdle—he'll find a way to transport you to somewhere that's both terrifying and thrilling, even playing the most familiar blues chestnuts. Also tonight at Reggie's Music Joint. —DW
2:30 PM John Primer Trio & Michal Prokop Trio See Friday's Mississippi Juke Joint listings for more on Primer.
4:15 PM Magic Slim Tribute featuring Shawn Holt & the Teardrops In the nearly three decades I've lived in Chicago, I've never enjoyed a blues band more than Magic Slim & the Teardrops—hard-hitting and no-nonsense, they epitomized urban blues for me. Magic Slim (aka Morris Holt) was born and raised in Mississippi but moved to Chicago in the early 60s and stayed here for more than four decades, first gaining a foothold among his peers and then becoming a bona fide legend. His style was always unfussy and direct—both his brusque, soulful howl and his stinging, efficient Telecaster leads—and his crack band's shuffle style was impossible to resist. He died in February of this year at age 75, while on tour in Philadelphia. His son Shawn Holt, a member of the Teardrops, will lead this tribute set. —PM
5:30 PM Shirley Johnson
6:35 PM Jimmy Johnson Band At 84 years old, Jimmy Johnson remains one of the most adventurous lead guitarists on the local blues scene. He peppers his twisting, darting solos with mile-wide bends in unexpected places, and his soaring vocals bear the influence of his early years as an R&B bandleader on the south-side circuit. Johnson was a late bloomer—Johnson's Whacks, his domestic debut LP on Delmark, hit the racks in 1979—but he's been a Chicago mainstay ever since. Also tonight at Reggie's Music Joint. —BD
8 PM Chicago Blues: Old School, New Millennium featuring James Cotton, John Primer, Billy Branch, Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater, Lil' Ed, Deitra Farr, Demetria Taylor, Matt Skoller, Billy Flynn, Johnny Iguana, Felton Crews, and Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith For more on Primer, see Friday's Mississippi Juke Joint listings.
This year's Blues Fest seems to be accompanied by fewer blues-themed events around town than past installments, but "fewer" hardly means "none." On Thu 6/6 at 6 PM, the film Born in Chicago makes its Windy City debut at the Vic. Directed by John Anderson and narrated by Marshall Chess (son of Leonard Chess, who cofounded the famous record label), it profiles white blues musicians (Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite) who learned the craft from aging African-American blues icons in the early- and mid-60s, then ascended to heights of stardom undreamed of by most of their mentors. The screening is followed by a concert with some of those blue-eyed blues pioneers, grizzled but unbowed.
Thu 6/6 at 7:30 PM and Fri 6/7 and Sat 6/8 at 6 PM, the Comedy Bar (157 W. Ontario) presents Rob Melnyk's play A Blues Seance: Songs of Fallen Women. It stars vocalists Ava Logan, Grana' Louise (see Sunday), and Sameerah Walker, portraying the spirits of blues singers Alberta Hunter, Lucille Bogan, and Victoria Spivey, brought back from the grave for a final encore; pianist Daryl Coutts provides accompaniment, and more shows may be added.
As usual, Chicago's blues clubs will be going strong—and in some cases ramping up—for the length of the festival. A few merit special mention: Lee's Unleaded Blues, the iconic urban juke at 7401 S. Chicago, has reopened and will host shows on all four nights of Blues Fest; call 773-493-3477 or visit leesunleadedblues.com for details. Wallace's Catfish Corner (2800 W. Madison, 773-638-3474), owned by former alderman Wallace Davis, is again booking live music on weekends, including vocalist Merv Murphy; so far shows have been inside the restaurant, but they might move into the parking lot if the weather's warm. The Water Hole (1400 S. Western, 312-243-7988) will expand its usual weekend blues schedule to include both Thursday and Friday nights; on Thursday I'll be there as well, signing copies of my latest book, Southern Soul-Blues.
SPACE, the Evanston venue corun by blues guitarist Dave Specter, showcases Specter himself on Wed 6/5, along with guitarist Donald Kinsey; Thu 6/6 it hosts a CD-release party for John Primer (see Friday) and harpist Bob Corritore. Venerable Chicago blues and jazz label Delmark Records presents two concerts at Reggie's Music Joint: First, on Thu 6/6 saxophonist Eddie Shaw is joined by a group that includes bassist Bob Stroger and guitarist Billy Flynn in a tribute to Magic Sam, one of the progenitors of the fervid, raucous electric style that's often (inaccurately) called "west side" blues. (Shaw was a contemporary of Sam's.) Second, on Sun 6/9 guitarists Jimmy Johnson (see Sunday), Lurrie Bell (see Sunday), and Toronzo Cannon get together for a fretboard workout. Plus Delmark is once again cosponsoring the annual Blues Brunch at the Jazz Record Mart (22 E. Illinois) on Sun 6/9 at 10 AM. —DW