The Reader’s guide to the 2019 Chicago Blues Festival | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

The Reader’s guide to the 2019 Chicago Blues Festival 

The fest diversifies its lineup for its third year in Millennium Park, with suave and sexy R&B star Latimore, deep-soul legend Don Bryant, genre-defying singer Bettye LaVette, and many more.

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Bobby Rush, pictured here at the 2007 Blues Festival, performs Friday at Jay Pritzker Pavilion. - MICHAEL JACKSON

The Chicago Blues Festival has tried to expand its scope this year to include a wider spectrum of artists and genres—and I can say that with some confidence, since for the first time in decades I served on the volunteer committee that helps book the fest. The lineup includes several aggressively contemporary acts, including incendiary young guitarist-vocalist Melody Angel and southern soul-blues artists Karen Wolfe and O.B. Buchana. Guitarist Benny Turner makes his Blues Festival debut this year, building on the legacy of his brother, the late Freddie King; so does Nigerien singer-­songwriter and guitarist Bombino, who exemplifies the complex, long-standing cultural exchange between American blues and African music. On Sunday evening, Ruthie Foster closes out the festivities with her eclectic blend of folk roots and modern blues and soul.

Of course, the usual array of old-schoolers is on hand too—the Blues Festival is nothing if not respectful of tradition. They include several Chicago veterans—harpist Billy Boy Arnold, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, singer Mary Lane, and boogie-woogie piano master Erwin Helfer—as well as deep-soul legend Don Bryant, eclectic soul stylist Bettye LaVette, the perennially suave and sexy Benny Latimore, and funk folklorist Bobby Rush, with his dancing girls and raunchily funny dispatches from the front lines of sex and love. As always, though, your best bet is to explore. Chicago singer Mzz Reese is richly deserving of wider recognition, for example, and Detroit's Thornetta Davis is legendary in her hometown but too often overlooked outside it. They both demonstrate one of the best things about Blues Fest: if you're willing to search, you can always find plenty of unexpected gems, rough-cut and otherwise.


Chicago Blues Festival
Fri 6/7 through Sun 6/9, 11 AM-9 PM, Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph, free, all ages


As it has been since 2017, the festival is held in Millennium Park. The Crossroads Stage, featuring local and national acts, is on the South promenade, southeast of the Cloud Gate sculpture ("the Bean"). The Juke Joint Stage, oriented toward southern artists, is on the North promenade, northeast of Cloud Gate. The Front Porch Stage is at Wrigley Square (at the park's northwest corner, near the intersection of Randolph and Michigan) and overlooks the area where nonprofit organizations set up their tents. The Rosa's Lounge booth, located adjacent to the Bean, and the Park Grill Stage, which is of course near the Park Grill, will both host music as well. All events are free. —David Whiteis


click image karen_wolfe_-_courtesy_sweet_success_records_teaser.jpg

Karen Wolfe sings tough but supple southern soul-blues

This Memphis vocalist has adopted the persona of a vintage blueswoman—feisty, independent, and ready to call out no-good men.

by David Whiteis


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Mzz Reese and her Reese’s Pieces serve up crowd-pleasing blues

Whether on well-chosen covers or her signature song “Cookies,” she prefers nuance and subtlety to pyrotechnics.

by David Whiteis


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Billy Boy Arnold helped the blues give birth to rock ’n’ roll

He might be best known as Bo Diddley’s 1950s harmonica player, but he’s 25 years into a comeback of his own.

by David Whiteis


click image jimmy_johnson_017_credit_paul_natkin_teaser.jpg

If you see one set this Blues Festival, make it Jimmy Johnson

At 90 years old, the guitarist is a walking master class in modern blues greatness.

by David Whiteis


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Melody Angel is the future of the blues

This Chicago musician and actress blends blues, old-school rock ’n’ roll, R&B, hip-hop, and more to create a style all her own.

by David Whiteis


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O.B. Buchana sings about sin with the voice of a saint

This soul-blues superstar brings a distinctive grit to his tales of all-night escapades.

by David Whiteis


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Latimore proves himself a smooth soul-blues survivor

He outlasted disco decades ago, and on his most recent album he applies his inimitable voice to the Great American Songbook.

by Bill Dahl


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Memphis veteran Don Bryant returns to soul after decades away

He narrowly missed stardom at Hi Records in the 60s, and now he’s taking another swing.

by Bill Dahl


click image bettye_lavette_-_photo_credit_mark_seliger_teaser.jpg

Bettye LaVette can make any song sound like it was written for her

She debuted with a hit soul single in 1962, but she’s long since transcended genre, singing blues, country, pop, funk, rock, and more.

by Bill Dahl


The complete schedule of the 2019 Chicago Blues Festival

Three full days of blues in Millennium Park, featuring Bobby Rush, Ruthie Foster, Dom Flemons, Bombino, Larkin Poe, and dozens more


Thinking outside the park (and beyond the weekend)

The Blues Festival spurs dozens of special events around town, including shows by Jamiah Rogers, Lurrie Bell, and Lynne Jordan—plus three historic photo exhibits.

by David Whiteis

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