The Reader's guide to the 32nd annual Chicago Blues Festival | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

The Reader's guide to the 32nd annual Chicago Blues Festival 

More people turn out for Blues Fest than for Pitchfork and Lollapalooza combined—and here are a couple dozen reasons why, including Syl Johnson, Shemekia Copeland, Clarence Carter, Chick Rodgers, and Buddy Guy.

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Syl Johnson

Syl Johnson

© Marc PoKempner

This year's Chicago Blues Festival has an autumnal feel, or least much of the Petrillo lineup does. To close the fest on Sunday night, the city has booked centennial tributes to departed legends Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon (though recent research has raised doubts about whether Muddy was born in 1915). Most of the other acts scheduled for the big stage are veterans whose glory days were decades ago or younger artists rooted in styles at least that old.

None of this will necessarily detract from the music they play this weekend, though. All the headliners are in fine fettle, and some—including Billy Branch, Shemekia Copeland, and Toronzo Cannon—are as progressive as they are rootsy. The side-stage bookings, meanwhile, often provide tantalizing glimpses of the present and future of the blues as an evolving art form. The Reader has written about 20 of the best and most interesting acts at this year's festival, many of them on those smaller stages.

The Crossroads Stage is in the rose garden south of Jackson near Lake Shore Drive, the Jackson Mississippi Rhythm & Blues Stage is near Columbus and Harrison, and the Front Porch Stage is on the lawn south of Jackson and east of Columbus. The Petrillo Music Shell, where the fest wraps up each night, is just northeast of Columbus and Jackson. And on Columbus between Jackson and Monroe, nonprofit organizations that support the blues will set up tents; at least two, the Windy City Blues Society and Fernando Jones's Blues Kids Foundation, have booked live music all weekend. All events are free. David Whiteis

Friday, June 12

Crossroads Stage

click to enlarge Quintus McCormick - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Quintus McCormick
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

11:15 AM Quintus McCormick Guitarist and vocalist Quintus McCormick plays with thoughtful precision, but the passion in his bluesy, soul-­fueled music comes through loud and clear. And despite his northern upbringing (he was born in Detroit in 1957), he echoes the enunciation, timbre, and phrasing of classic southern deep-soul singers, incorporating folksy aphorisms into songs powered by fatback soul chording and focused, intricately textured leads. Like predecessors such as McKinley Mitchell and Little Milton, as well as more recent Chicagoans such as Johnny Dollar, B.B. Odom, and Little Johnny Christian, McCormick invokes the music's roots as he pushes it in more contemporary directions. David Whiteis

12:45 PM Mary Lane Though Mary Lane has been all too sparsely recorded over the decades, she's one of Chicago's earthiest blues chanteuses. Her tough vocal delivery reflects her upbringing in Arkansas, where she sang with slide-guitar wizard Robert Nighthawk as well as Joe Hill Louis and Howlin' Wolf. She migrated to Chicago's west side by way of Waukegan and was married to guitarist Morris Pejoe when she cut her mid-60s debut single, "You Don't Want My Loving No More," for the Friendly Five label. And on her first CD, 1997's Appointment With the Blues (Noir), she stayed in that no-nonsense mode. Bill Dahl

2:30 PM Charlie Love

4:15 PM Nellie "Tiger" Travis with special guest BB Queen In 2013 Chicago singer Nellie "Tiger" Travis cut an ode to dance-floor lust called "Mr. Sexy Man" that's become a modern-day southern soul classic—it's even spawned its own signature line dance. But Travis also digs deeper: "Super Woman," from 2005's Wanna Be With You (Da-Man), describes the tribulations of an overworked, underappreciated mother and breadwinner; the breakup anthem "Don't Talk to Me," from 2008's I'm a Woman (CDS), conveys a gut-wrenching combination of grief, heartbreak, and resolve. Though she operates in a genre often stereotyped for its puerile double entendres and party-­song cliches, Travis delivers her deep, throaty vocals with an emotional honesty that's welcome and encouraging. David Whiteis

Jackson Mississippi Rhythm & Blues Stage

11:30 AM Panel discussion with Richard Shurman: "100 Years of Blues Greatness: Honoring Distinguished Centennials"

1 PM Scott Albert Johnson

2:30 PM JJ Thames

4 PM John Primer Whether serving as an impeccable sideman for the likes of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Magic Slim (with whom he spent 14 years dishing up relentless shuffles and snarling blues) or leading his own band (as he has since the mid-90s), guitarist John Primer maintains an unshakable commitment to Chicago's blues tradition. A fluid stylist who never overplays, Primer understands the value of the classic ensemble sound, and clearly absorbed a great deal from Muddy and Slim. He's also a convincing singer who's released a steady stream of solid albums in recent years. Primer also plays Thu 6/11 at Buddy Guy's Legends. Bill Dahl

5:30 PM Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith jam session

Front Porch Stage

Noon Blues in the Schools with Stone Academy students, Eric Noden, and Katherine Davis

1:30 PM Studebaker John's Maxwell Street Kings

3 PM Andy T Nick Nixon Band

Eddie Shaw - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Eddie Shaw
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

4:30 PM Eddie Shaw & the Wolfgang Only a handful of tenor saxophonists—J.T. Brown, A.C. Reed—have built substantial legacies as Chicago bandleaders, and none has come close to matching the long-term impact of Eddie Shaw. He paid his dues in his native Mississippi before a job offer from Muddy Waters brought him to Chicago in 1957. Guitar legend Magic Sam and Muddy's rival Howlin' Wolf kept Shaw gainfully employed the longest, and after Wolf died, Shaw took over his band as the Wolfgang (often spelled "Wolf Gang"). He's been in the driver's seat ever since, his extraordinarily muscular blowing (now and then on harmonica) perfectly complementing his gruff vocals. Shaw also plays tonight at Kingston Mines. Bill Dahl

Petrillo Music Shell

click to enlarge Zora Young - CHRISTELLE RAMA
  • Zora Young
  • Christelle Rama

6 PM Zora Young Chicago vocalist Zora Young hails from West Point, Mississippi, not far from Howlin' Wolf's birthplace. According to family lore, Wolf was a relative, and Young's raspy, corrugated timbre makes the connection seem feasible. But Young is no one-­dimensional blooze-mama screamer: she'll modulate from a smoldering croon into a full-bodied shout in a single measure, or soften into a kittenish purr on ballads. Her recorded output, mostly on Delmark, shows off her depth and breadth, but she really comes alive onstage, where she lends weight to her sassy, exuberant, matronly persona by baring her soul. David Whiteis

Clarence Carter - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Clarence Carter
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

7:05 PM Clarence Carter With his trademark lascivious chuckle, Clarence Carter has been stereotyped as an R-rated southern soul man, in large part due to his amusingly raunchy 1985 underground hit "Strokin'." But the blind guitarist, born in Montgomery, Alabama, had his commercial and artistic heyday in the late 60s, when he waxed the classic soul smashes "Slip Away" and "Too Weak to Fight" for Atlantic Records at Rick Hall's Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. Carter specialized in funk-tinged cheating songs even then, though he wouldn't record anything truly naughty till much later. His lachrymose 1970 million-­seller "Patches" is an acquired taste—and a rare exception to his usual approach. Bill Dahl

8:25 PM Syl Johnson This veteran of Chicago's blues and soul scenes has been enjoying a remarkable career resurgence, thanks in part to the 2010 Numero Group box set Complete Mythology, which burnished his legacy by reminding the world that he released plenty of killer soul (on Federal, Twinight, and a few smaller indies) before his well-known stint on Hi Records in the 70s. Johnson, who's made a mark as a producer and songwriter as well, is also the subject of a forthcoming documentary called Any Way the Wind Blows, its title taken from one of his classic Hi sides. Few artists have found the sweet spot between blues and soul as unerringly as Johnson, and though his sporadic releases since leaving Hi in the late 70s have been uneven in quality, he has such a deep repertoire of classics that the spotlight he now enjoys in his hometown is well deserved. These days Johnson sometimes plays around with the affectations of the hip-hop acts who have fattened his bank account by sampling his work, but unless he goes off the deep end tonight, this headlining set is a sure bet. Peter Margasak

A roundup of afterfest blues shows for folks who can't get enough in Grant Park this weekend

Saturday, June 13

Crossroads Stage

11:15 AM Jamiah "On Fire" & the Red Machine

12:45 PM Marquise Knox Finally, a young blues artist who's hailed as a "prodigy" and sounds like the real deal. Guitarist Marquise Knox was born in Saint Louis in 1991, and he recorded his first album at age 16; his latest, 2011's Here I Am (APO), demonstrates his uncanny ability to bring up-to-the-minute musical and emotional urgency to the most time-tested blues tropes. His improvisational imagination is vivid, his technical chops are unerring, and his rich, resonant vocals should silence doubters who question his ability to convey genuine blues feeling at such a tender age. David Whiteis

Jarekus Singleton - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Jarekus Singleton
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

2:30 PM Jarekus Singleton Guitarist Jarekus Singleton grew up near Jackson, Mississippi, enamored of hip-hop and rap. Since discovering the blues in his teens, he's crafted a style rooted in the 12-bar tradition but updated with contemporary melodic, rhythmic, and lyric conceits. On last year's Refuse to Lose, his second album (and first for Alligator), Singleton's solos are aggressive and challengingly nonlinear; his technical prowess can be dazzling, but he never sacrifices meaning for flash. His notes tell stories as eloquently as his lyrics, whose unorthodox, free-ranging rhyme schemes reflect his hip-hop background. Witty, confrontational, and vulnerable by turns, they're also uncompromisingly honest. Singleton also plays tonight at SPACE in Evanston. David Whiteis

4:15 PM Shawn Holt & the Teardrops

Jackson Mississippi Rhythm & Blues Stage

11:30 AM Panel discussion: "The Essence of Soul Blues" with Alex Thomas and Johnny Rawls

1 PM The House Rockers

2:30 PM Vickie Baker When Vickie Baker isn't teaching high school music in Vicksburg, Mississippi, she moonlights as one of the best-kept secrets in southern soul blues. Her voice, wispy and delicate on ballads, expands fulsomely on more declamatory fare; in her lyrics she combines womanly feistiness with R-rated high jinks that she's probably better off hiding from her fellow faculty members, to say nothing of her students' parents (1997's "Don't Gimme No Lip" and the more recent "Get Me Weak" are good examples). Though her themes seldom transcend standard-issue war-of-the-sexes signifying, within those constraints she's an eloquent story­teller with a winning sense of humor and a sly, insinuating delivery. David Whiteis

4 PM Johnny Rawls

5:30 PM Jam session with the House Rockers

Front Porch Stage

Austin "Walkin' Cane" Charanghat - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Austin "Walkin' Cane" Charanghat
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

Noon Austin "Walkin' Cane" Charanghat Cleveland guitarist Austin "Walkin' Cane" Charanghat counts among his mentors the late Robert Lockwood Jr., who learned directly from Robert Johnson himself. Like Lockwood, who prided himself on his musical sophistication, Charanghat casts a wide net that spans Johnsonesque Delta blues, raw-edged juke-joint house rockers, and jazz-­seasoned jump blues; he also throws in bits of hard-driving, hypnotic North Mississippi modal blues and fleet-fingered picking reminiscent of the ragtime-influenced Piedmont acoustic style. He's armored against charges of dilettantism by the intensity of his emotional focus—no postmodernist detachment for him—and by the depth and scope of his lyric vision. David Whiteis

click to enlarge Lurrie Bell - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Lurrie Bell
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

1:30 PM Lurrie Bell Lurrie Bell is one of Chicago's most satisfying electric blues guitarists. His blistering fret work seems to come from a deeper place than usual, and his hair-­raising vocals are as lethal as his ax. B.B. King's influence resonates in Bell's ringing riffs and concise phrasing (he learned his trade playing with his dad, harp master Carey Bell), but he long ago developed his own instantly recognizable attack. His sizzling 2013 Delmark album, Blues in My Soul, may be his best yet. Bill Dahl

3 PM Paul Oscher Trio

4:30 PM The Cash Box Kings

Petrillo Music Shell

Toronzo Cannon - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Toronzo Cannon
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

5:30 PM Toronzo Cannon Local singer and guitarist Toronzo Cannon shows off his impressive range on 2013's John the Conquer Root (Delmark), tackling full-band soul ("Cold World"), airy acoustic ballads ("Let It Shine Always"), and rough-and-tumble biker-bar rock 'n' roll ("Sweet, Sweet, Sweet"). Cannon excels when he lets his ax take the lead: on the title track, for instance, he doles out slow, shimmying riffs and smoldering licks. Cannon also plays tonight at B.L.U.E.S. Leor Galil

click to enlarge Shemekia Copeland - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Shemekia Copeland
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

6:30 PM Shemekia Copeland Window-­rattling Chicago-based vocalist Shemekia Copeland replaces the Taj Mahal Trio after a last-­minute cancellation. Copeland is usually considered a blues singer—in a ceremony at the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival, Koko Taylor's daughter bestowed her late mother's tiara on Copeland. But she's also a versatile roots-­music stylist, and her latest album, 2012's 33 1/3, showcases her range and depth. On the hard-pounding "Lemon Pie" she denounces injustice with the flair and venom of a juke-joint Nina Simone; on the ironically up-tempo "One More Time" she delivers a death threat with irony-toughened humor. Perhaps most impressive is "Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo," a vignette of abuse, treachery, and doomed infatuation—her voice sounds fraught with desperation and girded with steel. Copeland has a new album due on Alligator in September. David Whiteis

click to enlarge Buddy Guy - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Buddy Guy
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

8:05 PM Buddy Guy With the recent passing of B.B. King, Chicago guitar slinger Buddy Guy is arguably the greatest living practitioner of electric blues. Guy long ago adopted a searing, effects-pedal-augmented attack, seemingly in deference to the rockers he influenced, but his piercing sound, stabbing asides, and high-pitched cries have stayed intact. He's an extroverted showman, for better or worse, and never shy about playing to the cheap seats with outsize pyrotechnics. On his latest record, the 2013 double album Rhythm & Blues (RCA), he demonstrates that he can connect more powerfully with his listeners when he shows some restraint, but I wouldn't expect too much of that tonight. Peter Margasak

A roundup of afterfest blues shows for folks who can't get enough in Grant Park this weekend

Sunday, June 14

Crossroads Stage

click to enlarge Chick Rodgers - ©2012 RICHARD A. CHAPMAN/CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Chick Rodgers
  • ©2012 Richard A. Chapman/Chicago Sun-Times

11:15 AM Chick Rodgers Chicago singer Melvia "Chick" Rodgers is widely praised for her versatility, but even her most ardent admirers couldn't have anticipated her latest project. On the 2014 album This Kind of Love, backed by musicians as varied as Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues ensemble and AACM saxophone master Ernest Khabeer Dawkins, Rodgers remakes herself before our ears as an art-music chanteuse of the first order. Her voice, leathery and scarred yet infused with light, plumbs despair and hope with equal fearlessness; the songs, written by co­producers Gilles Aniorte-Tomassian and Chris Larumbe, have a depth in their lyrics that's worthy of Jacques Brel. If Rodgers continues in this direction, who knows what heights she'll reach. David Whiteis

12:45 PM Holle Thee Maxwell Chicago singer Holle Thee Maxwell is 69 years old, and she's worn a lot of hats in a career that stretches all the way back to her childhood voice training. She focused on soul in the 60s, recording as Holly Maxwell; the Constellation label released the glum, swooning "Only When You're Lonely" and the sweetly mannered "(Happiness Will Cost You) One Thin Dime." She moved to California in the 70s, performed with Ike Turner for a spell, and returned to town in the 80s. She's since rebranded herself as Holle Thee Maxwell, a bombshell with plenty of bluesy swagger. In her recent Blues Festival sets, she's pushed her worn voice to its limits and thrown her entire body into her performances. Leor Galil

2:30 PM Blues Shaking the Fields

4:15 PM John Nemeth

Jackson Mississippi Rhythm & Blues Stage

11:30 AM Panel discussion: Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon

click to enlarge Tawanna Shaunte - AMIN RUSSELL/© NYT PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Tawanna Shaunte
  • Amin Russell/© NYT Photography

1 PM Tawanna Shaunte The variegated style of Mississippi singer Tawanna Shaunte reflects her background and experience—she grew up in a gospel-rich musical family, sang with the band Eclectik Soul, and more recently collaborated with jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson. Her voice is soft-edged but resonant, and she has total control of its supple melisma and large, effortless-sounding range. Lyrically, Shaunte tends toward the uplifting and socially conscious, but she's not preachy—she delivers her meditations on hope, strength, and perseverance with unforced ease, and African-­flavored hand-drum accompaniment connects a very long history to her timely, urgent message. David Whiteis

2:30 PM Tonya Boyd-Cannon

4 PM Patrice Moncell

5:30 PM Jam session with Dexter Allen

Front Porch Stage

Noon Celebrating the centennial of 1915–2015: Round robin with Bill Sims Jr. (tribute to Brownie McGhee), Paul Kaye (tribute to David "Honey­boy" Edwards), and Donna Herula (tribute to Johnny Shines and Rosetta Tharpe)

1:30 PM Paul Kaye Trio

3 PM M.S.G. Acoustic Blues Trio

4:30 PM Heritage Blues Quartet

Petrillo Music Shell

click to enlarge Billy Branch - COURTESY CHICAGO DCASE
  • Billy Branch
  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE

5 PM Billy Branch & the Sons of Blues with special guest Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater No one pushes the blues-harmonica envelope as stylishly as Chicagoan Billy Branch. He has gargantuan chops but always uses them tastefully, leaving the grandstanding for mere mortals. Last year's Blues Shock (Blind Pig), Branch's latest release with his band the Sons of Blues, includes Little Walter-derived shuffles alongside elegant jazz-tinged excursions. Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater, tonight's special guest, was like a mirror image of Chuck Berry in the late 1950s, but the southpaw guitarist transcended that label by adding west-side blues to his rocking attack. He's now one of Chicago's revered blues elders. Branch also plays Fri 6/12 at Kingston Mines and Sun 6/14 at Buddy Guy's Legends; Clearwater also plays Fri 6/12 at Buddy Guy's Legends. Bill Dahl

6:20 PM Willie Dixon centennial tribute featuring Billy Branch, Keshia Dixon, Tomiko Dixon, Bobby Dixon, Freddie Dixon, Alex Dixon, Cash McCall, Sugar Blue, John Watkins, and Andrew Blaze Thomas

8:05 PM Muddy Waters centennial tribute featuring Bob Margolin, Mud Morganfield, Big Bill Morganfield, John Primer, Rick Kreher, Bob Stroger, Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith, E.G. McDaniel, Barrelhouse Chuck, Jerry Portnoy, and Paul Oscher  v

A roundup of afterfest blues shows for folks who can't get enough in Grant Park this weekend

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