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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.


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

  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE
  • Quintus McCormick

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

  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE
  • Eddie Shaw

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

  • Christelle Rama
  • Zora Young

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

  • Courtesy Chicago DCASE
  • Clarence Carter

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

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