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The Reader's Guide to the Chicago Blues Festival

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Early this year, citing financial crisis, the city of Chicago threatened to consolidate or eliminate most of its free lakefront music festivals, or at least to start charging admission to some of them. The cover-charge idea died on the vine, but four events—Viva! Chicago, the Country Music Festival, Celtic Fest, and the Gospel Music Festival—have been rolled into Taste of Chicago this year, leaving only the blues and jazz festivals freestanding.

Freestanding, yes, but in this case certainly diminished. The 28th annual Chicago Blues Festival is hardly the world-class extravaganza of years past—it features mostly local and regional artists who might happen to play Chicago's juke joints, clubs, concert halls, and show lounges on a particularly busy weekend. The good news, of course, is that the city is still home to so many quality blues musicians that even a festival of mostly locals is worthwhile.

The roots of the blues in Chicago are deep and unbroken—for evidence see Alligator Records' 40th-anniversary celebration on the Petrillo stage Sunday, or Saturday afternoon's multi­generational tribute to pianist Pinetop Perkins, a stalwart in Muddy Waters's band who died at 97 this past March. Harpist Billy Branch and guitarist Carl Weathersby, both among Saturday's headliners, carry torches for the Chicago style, augmenting vintage postwar blues with innovations from rock and funk; youngbloods like Eric "Guitar" Davis, who performs early on Friday, infuse their playing with even more boldly forward-looking influences.

Chicago is also a contender in the modern soul-blues market, though the genre remains primarily based in southern strongholds like Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee—this year's fest includes sets from several soulful local vocalists, from veterans like Lee "Shot" Williams and JoAnne Graham to promising newcomers like Jeannie Holliday and Theo Huff. There's even a bit of star power on the bill: Shemekia Copeland continues to earn international recognition as one of several potential heirs to the crown of Koko "Queen of the Blues" Taylor.

The layout of the festival hasn't changed much from years past. The Petrillo Music Shell, where the bigger names play, is just northeast of Columbus and Jackson. The Front Porch Stage, which features mostly acoustic artists and small bands, is on the lawn south of Jackson and west of Columbus. The Crossroads stage, which features electric blues from local and national artists, is at the east end of Jackson at Lake Shore Drive. The Mississippi Juke Joint leans toward rootsier acts, both acoustic and electric, though it also hosts panel discussions and interviews; it's south on Columbus near Balbo, east of the Lincoln statue. On Columbus between Jackson and Monroe, the Windy City Blues Society and other nonprofits will set up tents and booths; the WCBS has also booked a stage with live blues all weekend. Highlights on Saturday include Charles "Delta Blues Hog" Hayes from Milwaukee at 1:40 PM, followed by Lurrie Bell at 3 (a rare acoustic performance, with drummer Kenny Smith); among Sunday's notable sets are Fernando Jones at 11 AM, Eric "Guitar" Davis at 12:20, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith at 3, and up-and-coming fretman Toronzo Cannon at 5:40. All events are free. —DW

Thinking outside the park

Chicago's many blues clubs will be running full-tilt all weekend, and a few venues that don't usually focus on the blues—notably SPACE in Evanston—will do so for the occasion. Many festival artists will play shows around the city as well. There are too many shows piggybacking on the fest to list them all here, but a few special events deserve mention. Buddy Guy's Legends has an impressive lineup throughout the weekend, including its customary "blues brunches" Saturday and Sunday at 11 AM, and if you're reading this Wednesday evening, you can still catch a big evening of music that starts at 6 PM and includes Billy Branch, Deitra Farr, Carlos Johnson, Nick Moss & the Flip Tops, Cathy Richardson, Matthew Skoller, and Nellie "Tiger" Travis, plus a tribute to Pinetop Perkins with Chris "Hambone" Cameron, Barrelhouse Chuck, Erwin Helfer, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and more. On Thursday the Tribune's stage and radio show Chicago Live! hosts a blues program at Chicago Theatre Downstairs starting at 6:30 PM, with performances by Honeyboy Edwards, Shemekia Copeland, Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater, and more. Friday at 8 PM at Reggie's Music Joint, Holle Thee Maxwell hosts an all-female revue featuring vocalists Liz Mandeville, Demetria Taylor, Peaches Staten, and Ramblin' Rose, among others. Also on Friday night, soul-blues star Bobby Rush headlines at Milan Banquet Hall, 651 Lakehurst Rd. in Waukegan; Chicago's Jeannie Holliday opens, and the show starts at 8:30 PM. Reggie's Music Joint also hosts a west-side revue on Saturday at 9 PM with Rockin' Johnny, Eddie C. Campbell, Tail Dragger, and more. At 10 AM on Sunday morning Jazz Record Mart hosts Delmark's annual blues brunch with James Kinds, Demetria Taylor, Dave Specter, Nick Moss, Curtis Salgado, and more. And Rosa's Lounge has booked an after-hours blues-fest jam that starts at 9:30 PM on Sunday and features Luca Giordano, Quique Gomez, Bob Stroger, and Eddie C. Campbell. —DW



11 AM Guy King & His Little Big Band

12:45 PM Eric "Guitar" Davis & the Troublemakers

2:30 PM Holle Thee Maxwell

4:15 PM The Rockin' Johnny Band featuring Smiley Tillman and Mary Lane


11:30 AM Panel discussion of Robert Johnson with Steven Johnson (family of Robert Johnson)

12:30 PM Howlin' Wolf birthday celebration panel discussion with Richard Shurman, Bettye Kelly, Barbra Marks, Hubert Sumlin, and Larry Hill Taylor

1:30 PM D'Mar & Gill

3 PM Nora Jean Bruso

4:30 PM James "Super Chikan" Johnson James "Super Chikan" Johnson is as famous for the instruments he builds—cigar-box guitars, adaptations of the single-stringed diddley bow, elaborately painted "chikantars" with bodies made from gas cans—as he is for the music he plays. But his work as a bluesman is as flashy and entertaining as his work as a luthier. His preferred mode is late-night raunchy; his frenetic tunes frequently wander into styles as diverse as funk and country; and his solos, whether played on one of his own creations or on a standard six-stringer, are transcendentally unhinged. —MR

6 PM Festival Jam Session with Fernando Jones


12:30 PM Blues in the Schools: Stone Academy with Eric Noden, Katherine Davis, and Erwin Helfer See below for Erwin Helfer and Katherine Davis.

2 PM Erwin Helfer Band featuring Katherine Davis Pianist Erwin Helfer has been a Chicago treasure for many years—his fluency in the blues, jazz, and especially boogie-woogie allows him to embody nearly extinct musical virtues with remarkable precision and eloquence. His ubiquity has made it easy to take him for granted, but his playing should rightfully be savored. Sadly, it's been six years since his most recent record, Careless Love (The Sirens), a superb, wide-ranging trio session where he tackles the jazz standard "Blue Monk" and gives a calypso-flavored reading to Hank Williams's "Jambalaya." He's joined by powerhouse vocalist Katherine Davis, who's as persuasive doing hard-edged Chicago blues as she is paying homage to the classic style of singers like Bessie Smith. —PM

3:35 PM Rocky Lawrence

4:45 PM Sanctified Grumblers


6:15 PM Eddie Cotton On his recorded debut, 2000's Live at the Alamo Theatre, as well as its follow-up, 2002's Extra, Mississippi-based guitarist and vocalist Eddie Cotton Jr. showcases his versatility, turning his considerable gifts loose on pop-oriented original tunes, covers of soul and soul-blues classics, and blues standards associated with the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, and Little Milton. No matter what the genre, Cotton's fretwork combines intensity with precision—even when his lead lines are at their most furious, every cleanly articulated note sounds planned out in advance. And in his vocals, he seasons his impassioned delivery with the kind of languor that northern-bred bluesmen don't seem able to duplicate. —DW

8 PM Tribute to Robert Johnson: David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Rick Sherry, Rocky Lawrence, Hubert Sumlin, and the Duwayne Burnside Band Almost 75 years after he died and 50 years after his recordings became widely famous, Robert Johnson remains as powerful a presence in the blues and its offshoots as he's ever been. The difference now is that it's increasingly hard to find living musicians who've had direct interactions with him. David "Honeyboy" Edwards is one of the few remaining, and his elaborate Delta-style fingerpicking and weathered voice are well suited for paying tribute to Johnson. Guitarist Hubert Sumlin—longtime sideman to Howlin' Wolf, which makes him one degree removed from Johnson—plays an amplified adaptation of the Delta style that connects folk blues with its modern incarnation. Also part of this set are harmonica player Rick Sherry of the Sanctified Grumblers (and previously Devil in a Woodpile) and guitarist Rocky Lawrence, a Robert Johnson fanatic who's spent years learning to perform the 29 songs that Johnson recorded exactly as he played them. See below for the Duwayne Burnside Band. —MR



11 AM Ronnie Hicks & Masheen Company with Bob Jones, Cicero Blake, Brown Sugar, and Jesi Terrell

12:45 PM Dave Herrero & the Hero Brothers Band

2:30 PM Duwayne Burnside Band Duwayne Burnside grew up in the shadow of his father, the late R.L. Burnside, who helped bring the raucous, unrefined blues style popular in rural northern Mississippi to broad audiences with a string of 90s albums. Duwayne's music is well-mannered compared to his dad's—a little more Memphis nightclub than backwoods juke joint. As a guitarist and vocalist he gives expressive, nuanced performances, and the years he put in playing with the jam-band-oriented North Mississippi Allstars seems to have taught him the value of giving a song room (and time) to breathe. —MR

4:15 PM George Stancell and band featuring Willie Buck On his 1999 debut, Gorgeous George, Wisconsin-based guitarist George Stancell showcased his emotional, string-bending fretboard style and vocal influences drawn from deep soul and soul-blues—his soaring, vibrato-rich singing invites comparison to Little Johnny Taylor. Chicago vocalist Willie Buck, meanwhile, is an unreconstructed traditionalist: onstage and on disc (most of his recordings are on his own Bar-Bare imprint, though Delmark reissued some last year), he performs what are basically note-for-note reproductions of tunes written by or associated with postwar titans like Muddy Waters and Little Walter, using his amiable, laid-back baritone vocals to stamp them with his personality. —DW


11:30 AM Panel discussion of the Mississippi Blues Trail: Jim O'Neal, Rip Daniels, Scott Barretta, and Alex Thomas

1 PM Jarekus Singleton

2:30 PM Dexter Allen

4 PM Zac Harmon

5:30 PM Mississippi Jam Session featuring Dexter Allen


1 PM Fernando Jones with the Blues Kids of America and the Columbia College Blues Ensemble All Stars

2:15 PM Fruteland Jackson

3:30 PM Sam Lay Blues Band

4:45 PM Tribute to Pinetop Perkins featuring Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Barrelhouse Chuck Pianist Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, a longtime Muddy Waters sideman and an important artist in his own right, died at 97 on March 21—a little over a month after winning a Grammy for Joined at the Hip (Telarc), his 2010 release with harpist and former Waters drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. This tribute features Chicagoan Barrelhouse Chuck in Pinetop's chair, along with Smith, his son Kenny (nicknamed "Beady Eyes") on drums, bassist Bob Stroger, and guitarist Little Frank Krakowski. It should be more than just a love fest, given the powerful chops and musical dedication of everyone involved. —DW


6 PM Dave Specter Band featuring Jimmy Johnson With its subtly shaded dynamics, Dave Specter's cool, concise guitar style expertly straddles the fence between blues and jazz—think T-Bone Walker and Magic Sam crossed with Kenny Burrell. On his latest album, the all-instrumental Spectified (Fret12), he sprinkles the tunes with funky R&B grooves as well. Out front here will be Specter's frequent onstage cohort, veteran Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson, who punctuates his soaring vocals with sparkling lead guitar full of dazzling mile-wide bends. Brother of soul man Syl Johnson, he works soul into his blues as confidently as Specter incorporates jazz. —BD

7:15 PM Carl Weathersby Mentored by Albert King in his late 20s (he played in King's band from 1979 till '82), guitarist Carl Weathersby still plays with a mix of bluesy rawness and funky sophistication that harks back to the lessons he learned from the legendary southpaw string bender. Like King, Weathersby draws his inspiration from diverse sources—his latest CD, 2009's I'm Still Standing Here (Magnolia), includes a smoldering cover of Teddy Pendergrass's "Love T.K.O." alongside more conventional blues and funk-blues fare—but he makes his bluesman's pedigree plain with the muscular sensuality of his voice and the emotional force of his leads. —DW

8:30 PM Billy Branch & the Sons of Blues with Magic Slim Billy Branch consistently pushes the envelope of blues harmonica while staying true to the genre's traditions. The gruff-voiced harpist detours from the instrument's standard role in the Chicago ensemble sound with fleet barrages of skittering bent notes, yet he's unequaled when it comes to full-toned amplified blasts a la Little Walter or Big Walter Horton. Branch and his Sons of Blues (long anchored by bassist Nick Charles and drummer Mose Rutues) have held down Monday nights at cozy Artis's Lounge on East 87th Street for ages, and their sound is more than full enough for Petrillo. —BD



11 AM Jarekus Singleton

12:45 PM Rob Blaine's Big Otis Blues

2:30 PM Bobby "Slim" James Band with Lee "Shot" Williams and JoAnne Graham Bobby "Slim" James's 1968 single "I Really Love You" is a prized collector's item on England's northern soul circuit. A frequent attraction on the south and west sides, the guitarist and singer will lead a band behind vocalists JoAnne Graham and Lee "Shot" Williams, who in 1964 cut "You're Welcome to the Club," later recorded by Little Milton. A smoky slice of soul-steeped blues, the song is perfect for his powerful pipes—he's heavily influenced by Bobby "Blue" Bland, with whom he toured early in his career. Williams hit regionally in 1969 with "I Like Your Style," produced in Memphis by Syl Johnson. His nickname dates from his childhood, when his folks called him "Little Shot." —BD

4:15 PM Theo Huff and Jeannie Holliday with Ronnie Hicks & Masheen Company Masheen Company, led by keyboardist Ronnie Hicks, are one of Chicago's most accomplished and versatile show bands. Here they'll support two promising soul-blues newcomers: Theo Huff, whose rich vocal timbre and sophisticated lyricism belie his youth (he's just 22), and Jeannie Holliday, a fiery stylist with a dazzling emotional and musical range. Holliday and Huff have both recorded for the Blast label, run by local entrepreneur Rick Lucas. —DW


11:30 AM Q&A with Bruce Iglauer and Richard Shurman celebrating the 40th anniversary of Alligator Records

12:30 PM Ben Wiley Payton

2 PM Jimmy Burns Band Born near Dublin, Mississippi, in 1943, Jimmy Burns moved to Chicago at age 12, while the city was bursting with a rich variety of African-American music. Early in his career he reflected the range of sounds he'd absorbed as a teenager, making excursions into doo-wop, neofolk, and soul, but when he came into his own in the late 70s as a guitar-wielding bandleader he'd folded all those traditions seamlessly into a sound based on electric blues. On his most recent album, 2007's Live at B.L.U.E.S. (Delmark), his singing is wonderfully soulful and his solos are sharp—on "Whole Lot of Lovin'" he even sings along with his leads a la George Benson. —PM

3:30 PM Nellie "Tiger" Travis

5 PM Festival Jam featuring Kenny Smith


1 PM Nick Moss & the Flip Tops with Curtis Salgado Nick Moss's uncommonly aggressive lead guitar attack, forceful vocals, and strong affinity for the classic ensemble approach got him anointed as a torch bearer for traditional electric Chicago blues—but then he released his 2010 album Privileged (Blue Bella), diving headfirst into blues-rock. (The current edition of the Flip Tops is proficient in either mode.) Guest harpist Curtis Salgado, a charter member of Robert Cray's band in the late 70s and early 80s, is also a soul-drenched singer. This lineup also plays the Windy City Blues Society stage at 4:20 PM on Saturday. —BD

2:15 PM Memphis Gold

3:30 PM Mud Morganfield Band Mud Morganfield sings in a gruff baritone that's eerily reminiscent of his father, Muddy Waters. His 2008 self-released CD Fall Waters Fall consists mostly of standard-issue blues numbers, but he gives them fresh urgency with his commitment and craftsmanship. The album's centerpiece is the autobiographical title tune—less a tribute to his dad than a baring of his own soul ("Sometimes a young man is left to find his own way / Livin' in the world, copin' day by day"), it seethes with anguish and vulnerability. Songs like this offer glimpses of the eloquence Morganfield may yet achieve if he can shed the burden of his inheritance. —DW

4:45 PM John Primer John Primer played his stinging guitar in Muddy Waters's last band, then spent a decade as a key member of Magic Slim's Teardrops before finally breaking out as a solo artist in the early 90s—he's old school all the way, cut from the same cloth as his former bosses. One of too few musicians in electric Chicago blues who understands the value of ensemble work, he saves his slicing solos for just the right spots (he's equally adept playing single-string or slide), and his commanding vocals ring out with an authority worthy of Muddy and Slim. —BD


6 PM Shemekia Copeland Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the great bluesman Johnny Copeland, started making albums for Alligator Records in 1998, when she was just 19. Right from the beginning she stood out as a special talent, but the stale production style of those Alligator releases cramped her amazing voice. Her latest, 2009's Never Going Back (Telarc), isn't perfect, but she's taking steps in a more fruitful direction, giving herself more room to move. Produced by Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers, the album occupies a nebulous space between the blues, country, and rock. Copeland nails Buddy and Julie Miller's "Dirty Water," brings an impressive lightness of touch to Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow," and gives her take on the Percy Mayfield classic "River's Invitation" all the gravitas it needs. —PM

7:30 PM Lonnie Brooks with Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater, Michael "Iron Man" Burks, and Rick Estrin: 40th anniversary celebration of Alligator Records Chicago's Alligator Records has been the leading U.S. blues label (at least among white listeners) for much of its 40-year history—the artists it's boosted to stardom include Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, and Fenton Robinson. Two of the headliners here, Eddy Clearwater and Lonnie Brooks, are rooted in rock 'n' roll as much as blues; versatile blues harpist Rick Estrin, meanwhile, is on sabbatical from Little Charlie & the Nightcats, yet another longstanding Alligator act. Though the label has a diverse roster full of blues and roots rock, this show will emphasize the high-energy "houserockin'" sound it's adopted as its trademark. —DW

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