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The Reader’s guide to the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival

The world’s largest free blues fest bustles with a diversity of traditions and talents—including Irma Thomas, Lazy Lester, Wee Willie Walker, John Primer, and tributes to Otis Rush and Otis Clay.

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Irma Thomas plays at Petrillo on Saturday evening; she’s pictured here at last year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. - BARRY BRECHEISEN
  • Barry Brecheisen
  • Irma Thomas plays at Petrillo on Saturday evening; she’s pictured here at last year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

The Chicago Blues Festival, like many such festivals these days, often has a valedictory feel—and this year's edition is no exception. Two sets honor artists who've died or retired (Otis Clay, who was felled by a heart attack in January, and Otis Rush, who suffered a stroke in 2004), and the headliners at Petrillo skew heavily toward well-seasoned veterans. The other bookings remain relatively conservative as well: guitar-heavy boogie-shuffle blues and old-school soul dominate.

On the other hand, the Petrillo sets on Friday night pay tribute to Alligator Records, which remains strong and forward-­looking—headliner Shemekia Copeland has grown into an eloquent stylist of roots music and Americana. And the side stages showcase plenty of younger artists.

The bookings on those stages seem to rely more heavily than normal on the usual suspects from around town, but they're augmented by enough extraordinary talents to keep most traditionalists and even some progressives satisfied—including John Primer, Lazy Lester, Teeny Tucker (daughter of Tommy Tucker of "Hi-Heel Sneakers" fame), Delta folklorist James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Texas vocal powerhouse Diunna Greenleaf, saxophonist Eddie Shaw and his Wolf Gang, and Mississippi stalwart Eddie Cotton.

We've singled out six festival sets—Primer, Lazy Lester, Irma Thomas, Wee Willie Walker, and the tributes to Rush and Clay—for special attention. They represent much of the lineup's diversity in style and era, and every one belongs on your list of the weekend's must-see performances.


Chicago Blues Festival
Fri 6/10 through Sun 6/12, 11:15 AM-9:30 PM, Grant Park, 337 E. Randolph, free, all-ages


The layout of the grounds hasn't changed since last year. The Crossroads Stage is in the rose garden south of Jackson, near Lake Shore Drive. The Jackson Mississippi Rhythm & Blues Stage is near the intersection of Columbus and Harrison. 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.

On Columbus between Jackson and Monroe, nonprofit organizations that sponsor or support the blues will set up tents, and two of them—the Windy City Blues Society and Fernando Jones's Blues Kids Foundation—will present live blues all weekend. All music is free. —David Whiteis

URKO DORRONSORO SAGASTI
  • Urko Dorronsoro Sagasti

Lazy Lester helped invent the swamp-blues sound half a century ago

The Louisiana native’s Blues Festival appearance is a historic occasion.

By David Whiteis


SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
  • Sun-Times Print Collection

Otis Clay recorded some of the world’s most enduring deep soul and gospel

This tribute set, anchored by his final working band, features Cicero Blake, Theo Huff, Willie Rogers of the Soul Stirrers, and more.

By David Whiteis


DOUG KNUTSON
  • Doug Knutson

Twin Cities soul veteran Wee Willie Walker makes his overdue Chicago debut

His newest album, If Nothing Ever Changes, has finally earned him the acclaim to match his talent.

By Bill Dahl


CHRIS SWEDA/SUN-TIMES
  • Chris Sweda/Sun-Times

Irma Thomas extends her benevolent reign

The Soul Queen of New Orleans has been recording for almost six decades—and singing at the Blues Festival since 1989.

By Bill Dahl


SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Sun-Times Media

John Primer sustains the living heritage of the blues

The Chicago guitarist honors his mentors—including Muddy Waters and Magic Slim—by serving as a role model for young musicians.

By David Whiteis


SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
  • Sun-Times Print Collection

Otis Rush recorded the harrowing blues that established his legacy 50 years ago in Chicago

He’s been sidelined by a stroke, but more than 25 musicians will pay tribute to him at this year’s festival.

By David Whiteis


SCOTT STEWART/SUN-TIMES
  • Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

The blues don’t quit when Grant Park goes dark

Chicago’s blues clubs are in high gear all weekend—and some neighborhood spots are getting in on the action.

By David Whiteis

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