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The Reader's Guide to the 21st Annual Chicago Blues Festival

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In many ways this year's Chicago Blues Festival is among the most conservative ever. Few artists in the lineup stray very far from mainstream styles, and the festival's bookers don't seem to have given any special attention to acts from outside Chicago: veterans like Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins are based here, as are younger firebrands like Vaan Shaw, Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks, and Carl Weathersby, and several of this year's visiting celebrities, like soul-blues star Willie Clayton, octogenarian guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr., and former Muddy Waters sideman Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, also have personal or professional roots in Chicago. Even the usual centennial birthday celebrations, often an excuse for a bit of adventurous programming, exist as little more than press releases. This year the honorees are Count Basie, harpist and composer William "Jazz" Gillum, boogie-woogie piano pioneer Clarence "Pinetop" Smith, and Delta blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell, but the only related events on the schedule are a panel discussion and a Basie tribute concert.

Nonetheless, the most provocative booking is an out-of-towner: Chris Thomas King from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For the past few years King has been developing an iconoclastic fusion of hip-hop, contemporary R & B, and blues--just the sort of experiment you'd have every right to expect to see happening in Chicago. The city has already served as an incubator for a series of innovations in black pop music: Doo-wop and soul thrived here alongside the fabled Chicago blues scene in the 50s and 60s, and the local gospel and R & B circuits have given rise to the likes of Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor, Curtis Mayfield, and Jerry Butler. Chicago dance clubs helped give birth to house music, and the city is currently home to several distinctive styles of rap and hip-hop. But few if any local blues artists have ventured into the territory King is exploring--a sobering sign that Chicago's reputation as a center for creativity in the blues is based on history, not on what's going on here today.

To be fair, this year's relatively tame festival lineup reflects a sort of stasis in the genre itself, not a lack of imagination on the part of the Mayor's Office of Special Events--forward-looking blues artists are the exception everywhere, not just in Chicago. That's not to say the traditional forms are played out: a fair number of artists appearing here, including Otis Clay, Lonnie Brooks, Willie Clayton, and E.C. Scott, are evidence in themselves that the old soil is still fertile. But as important as it is for the blues to stay connected to its roots, it needs to grow as well--which means more musicians have to pick up the gauntlet that innovators like Chris Thomas King have thrown down.

As always, the Petrillo Music Shell showcases each evening's headliners. The Front Porch, south of Jackson and west of Columbus, primarily hosts rootsy or acoustic acts; the Juke Joint, on Columbus north of Jackson, has a more varied lineup but likewise features relatively intimate sets. The Crossroads, at the intersection of Jackson and Lake Shore Drive, showcases mostly electric blues. The Route 66 Roadhouse tent, which hosts panel discussions and workshops, is at Jackson and Columbus; the stage booked by festival sponsor Best Buy is about three blocks south on Columbus. This year's Route 66 lineup, it must be said, is the best yet. DW

(* = recommended)

THURSDAY, JUNE 10

JUKE JOINT

NOON David Maxwell

Boston pianist David Maxwell specializes in re-creations of postwar blues standards, and his original tunes are based largely on those same themes. He brings a propulsive boogie feel to up-tempo numbers; on more introspective fare his playing has an unself-conscious intimacy. DW

1 PM Fruteland Jackson

Acoustic guitarist Fruteland Jackson enthusiastically blends a handful of southern blues styles, and his constricted tenor, with its rapid vibrato, harks back to field hollers and folk songs; fortunately he's better than most revivalists at updating the content of his lyrics. DW

2:30 PM Eddie and Vaan Shaw

Saxophonist Eddie Shaw, a former Howlin' Wolf sideman who occasionally doubles on harmonica, is joined here by his guitar-wielding son. Vaan often sounds like he's trying frantically to cram as many notes as possible into each phrase, but his father's laser-beam blowing provides a counterbalancing focus; though Eddie cites the elegant Ben Webster as a model, his cacophonous wails betray the influence of wallpaper-peeling 50s R & B honkers like Big Jay McNeely and Willis "Gator" Jackson. BD

4 PM Vino Louden

Guitarist and singer Vino Louden, Koko Taylor's longtime bandleader, formed his own group in 2000. Last year he self-released Vino Louden Live, a set of well-worn postwar standards (and a handful of originals) in his usual style: he's high-spirited and technically adept, but relies on flashy, crowd-pleasing tricks at the expense of nuance. DW

5 PM Sam Lay

Given to wearing crisply tailored zoot suits in eye-popping colors, Sam Lay would cause a commotion just by stepping onstage, even if he weren't one of the most powerful blues drummers to emerge from Chicago in the 60s. During that decade the Birmingham native's patented "double shuffle" drove the bands of Howlin' Wolf, Paul Butterfield, and James Cotton; over the years he's also recorded several albums as a bandleader, which show him to be a competent singer with a fondness for 50s rock 'n' roll classics as well as blues standards. On a small stage like this, Lay is liable to favor the guitar. BD

FRONT PORCH

1 PM Blues in the Schools

The traditional Front Porch kickoff, featuring students from the Chicago Public Schools who've been mentored by musicians as part of the city's Blues in the Schools program. This year the grown-ups are guitarists Billy Flynn and Roy Hytower (who's calling himself "Dokta Rhute Muuzic") and vocalists Deitra Farr and Ardella Williams (daughter of centennial honoree Jazz Gillum); the kids hail from the Grant Academy, Oscar Meyer, and Florence B. Price. DW

3 PM Detroit Junior

Piano man Emery Williams Jr., yet another alumnus of Howlin' Wolf's bands, has a delightful two-fisted style and a sly, good-humored approach to the blues. (Born in Haynes, Arkansas, he got his stage name because he lived in the Motor City before settling in Chicago in 1956.) A born entertainer--one of his favorite old stunts was to play the keyboard from beneath--Junior is best known for the funny slice-of-life original "Call My Job," recorded in 1965 for the local USA label and memorably covered by Albert King. BD

4:30 PM Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang

Volcanic tenor saxophonist Eddie Shaw led Howlin' Wolf's band from 1972 to '75, and after Wolf died in '76 Shaw kept the Wolf Gang together, touring far and wide in a customized school bus. Though in this setting Shaw is still partial to the imposing repertoire of his former boss, he's come up with plenty of fresh material too, often making good use of humor (see "Dunkin' Donut Woman"); his huge, expressive voice is just as sturdy and engrossing as his horn sound. BD

BEST BUY SHOWCASE

2:30 PM Dawn O'Keefe Williams

Dawn O'Keefe Williams sang with her late husband, guitarist Emery Williams Jr. (not to be confused with pianist Emery "Detroit Junior" Williams), in the local band Slick Willy Crazy; on her self-titled 2000 solo debut, she brings stylistic versatility and emotional range to a set of rock-tinged R & B. DW

3:45 PM Rabble Rousers Band

Though there's little original about their style, this suburban Chicago bar band charges through fuel-injected blues and roots rock with impressive energy. DW

5 PM Chicago Kingsnakes

The Kingsnakes are best known for their 90s stint backing Byther Smith, where they specialized in deep-pocketed 12-bar shuffles, spiced with tasty solo work on guitar and harmonica. Their most recent disc, last year's Grass Roots (Music King), is a mostly acoustic outing that pays tribute to the southern blues heritage that helped spawn the postwar Chicago sound. DW

6:15 PM The Buzz

There are some serious chops on display here, but the blooze-and-boogie shtick gets old in a hurry. DW

CROSSROADS

2 PM South-side Blues Revue with Smilin' Bobby, Bobby Too Tough and Lacy Gibson

The two Bobbys are amiable journeymen who've jobbed around town for decades; guitarist Lacy Gibson has recorded as a sideman with Buddy Guy, Willie Mabon, and Billy "the Kid" Emerson, among others, and cut LPs as a leader on Black Magic and Red Lightnin'. Ill health has impaired Gibson in recent years, but on a good day he'll give you solid postwar Chicago blues seasoned with a distinctive blend of countrified lyricism and proto-rock mayhem. DW

4 PM Johnny Drummer & the Starliters with Joanne Graham and Sweet Claudette

Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Drummer (who plays mostly keytar and harmonica these days) began recording locally in the 60s and appeared on a mid-70s live album, recorded at Ma Bea's on the west side, that's since become a sought-after cult favorite. More recently he's released a couple R & B-flavored discs on Earwig, where he finds a suppleness and sureness of pitch in his singing that sometimes eludes him onstage. Detroit soul-blues vocalist Sweet Claudette Harrell joins local gospel-soul singer Joanne Graham on the front line. DW

ROUTE 66 ROADHOUSE

3 PM * Poetry of the Blues: Sterling Plumpp, Paul Garon, Shellie Moore Guy and Melinda Jones

Sterling Plumpp, one of Chicago's most widely feted contemporary poets, makes a point of incorporating African-American vernacular traditions--including elements of the blues--into his work. Scholar Paul Garon has written critical biographies of Memphis Minnie and prewar bluesman Peetie Wheatstraw, but he's probably best known for the 1975 book-length essay Blues and the Poetic Spirit (City Lights), a provocative fusion of surrealism, Marxism, and Freudianism that remains compelling today. Shellie Moore Guy is a poet and storyteller based in Rock Island; Melinda Jones is a young Chicago poet who also addresses blues themes in her writing. DW

5 PM Moanin' at Midnight: Documenting the Wolf Moderated by Dick Shurman

James Segrest and Mark Hoffman's Moanin' at Midnight: The Life of Howlin' Wolf (Pantheon), published this month, is a milestone in blues scholarship--it's the first in-depth biography of the iconic performer. The authors will be present for this panel discussion; moderator Dick Shurman (a longtime producer, writer, and record collector) knew Wolf personally and helped compile and annotate 1991's Howlin' Wolf: The Chess Box. DW

PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL

6 PM Smokey Smothers with Pat Scott

Guitarist and singer Albert "Little Smokey" Smothers, a Chicago fixture for five decades, has worked with the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam, as well as led his own band; his classic postwar style is aggressive but unerringly tasteful. Vocalist Pat Scott is best known for her flamboyant nightclub act--she stalks around the room, singing and testifying directly into audience members' faces. The remoteness of the Petrillo's stage will certainly rule out that sort of thing, but Smothers's guitar should keep things smoldering anyway. DW

7:10 PM * Eddy Clearwater with Los Straitjackets

Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater was once Chicago's answer to Chuck Berry: on his singles from the late 50s and 60s, the guitarist rocked and rolled in an uncannily accurate imitation of the Duck Walker. But by the 1980s Clearwater was focusing on the stinging blues of the west-side scene that spawned him, and had relegated the Berry act to the back burner. On his latest album, Rock 'n' Roll City (Rounder), he's come full circle, teaming with masked surf rockers Los Straitjackets to revisit his rowdy formative years; their rockabilly-dominated romp packs plenty of contagious revivalist fun. BD

:20 PM Howlin' for Hubert featuring Hubert Sumlin, David Johansen and David Maxwell

Capping a daylong celebration of Howlin' Wolf--today would've been his 94th birthday--is this tribute to guitarist Hubert Sumlin, whose darting, unpredictable licks were a signature part of the big man's roughhousing sound. At a similar Wolf-themed set last year in Memphis, New York Dolls front man-turned-retro folkie David Johansen read the lyrics to some of the classic tunes right out of a songbook next to him onstage--a lack of preparation that did Wolf's legacy no justice whatsoever. The presence of Sumlin, who played with Wolf from the mid-50s till his death in 1976, should lend this ad hoc aggregation some gravitas; he's seemed rejuvenated musically since his recovery from a recent life-threatening illness. Pianist David Maxwell (see today's Juke Joint listing) had also confirmed at press time. BD

FRIDAY, JUNE 11

JUKE JOINT

NOON Erwin Helfer

Blues, boogie, jazz, Bach--Erwin Helfer is a master of all on the 88s. The Chicago native became fascinated by blues piano in his teens, falling under the sway of Jimmy Yancey and Blind John Davis and eventually developing a thoughtful style of his own that blends the spaciousness of Thelonious Monk with the thundering thrust of Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. Back in 1957, Helfer went into the studio for the Cobra label to accompany cantankerous guitarist Big Joe Williams; more than four decades later, on a handful of recent discs for the Sirens Records, he's still demonstrating just how mighty blues piano can be in the right hands. BD

1 PM * Vasti and Keisean Jackson

Vasti Jackson is a major figure in contemporary southern blues. The Mississippi guitarist has worked as a producer, sideman, arranger, or bandleader with Bobby "Blue" Bland, Bobby Rush, and C.J. Chenier, among others; his fretboard style ranges from deep soul to post-Hendrix pyrotechnics, and his vocals combine down-home churchiness with the aggression of R & B or rock. This set will be an acoustic duet with his 17-year-old son Keisean, a pianist who's studied under Louisiana keyboardists Katie Webster and Henry Butler. DW

2 PM Brooks Family

Lonnie Brooks has built something of a dynasty around these parts, mentoring his sons, Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks, in the finer points of electric blues guitar (both have spent quality time in dad's high-energy band). That's not to say Ronnie and Wayne aren't doing their own thing: their supercharged fretwork recalls Stevie Ray Vaughan at least as much as it does their old man and his hybrid Louisiana-Chicago approach. Lonnie and his Family Band headline the Petrillo tonight. BD

3 PM Meisha Herron

On disc Chicago singer and guitarist Meisha Herron combines elements of blues, jazz, pop, and spoken word; her backing tracks borrow from uptown swing, reggae, Afropop, and elsewhere. This set will be solo acoustic blues, however, and she'll draw from influences ranging from Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday. DW

3:45 PM Eric Noden with Yuji Hasegawa

Musician and educator Eric Noden has an encyclopedic knowledge of early blues, folk, and jug-band styles, but he's never pretentious or pedantic--his performances are always a rollicking good time. For the first half hour of this extended set Noden will be joined by 63-year-old Yuji Hasegawa of Itayanagi, Japan, who'll play the Aomori samisen, a 20th-century variant of the traditional three-stringed lute; this is reportedly the first time such an instrument has ever been used to accompany blues music in Chicago. DW

5:30 PM * Robert Lockwood Jr.

Robert Lockwood Jr. learned the guitar from legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, who'd become involved with his mother. In the 40s he was a regular on the fabled King Biscuit radio show on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and in the 50s became an indispensable session man for Chess in Chicago; several of his own recordings ("Take a Little Walk With Me," "Black Spider Blues") were enshrined as postwar standards. An aficionado of jazz and jump blues, he's long incorporated ideas borrowed from Louis Jordan and Count Basie into his work, and these days often leads a nine-piece big band with a 12-string electric guitar. But Lockwood is much more than a living link to a hallowed era in blues history: at 89, he remains a dexterous and innovative stylist, and deserves a more prominent slot than he's gotten here. DW

FRONT PORCH

1 PM Blues in the Schools

Another showcase for the young apprentices in the Blues in the Schools program. The grown-up contingent here includes Erwin Helfer and Eric Noden (see today's Juke Joint listings) and jazz-styled vocalist Katherine Davis; the students are from the Stone Academy. DW

3 PM Honeyboy Edwards, Jerry Ricks, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Homesick James

Edwards, Lockwood, and Homesick James all came of age in the south in the 20s and 30s, when giants like Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton still walked the earth (Edwards knew both men; Lockwood was Johnson's de facto stepson). Only Lockwood still has the chops to be consistently interesting as a guitarist, but sparks should fly between these three onstage. Jerry Ricks learned the vintage styles in the 60s, from "rediscovered" masters like Skip James, and at 64 he's nearly a match for the elder statesmen. DW

4:30 PM Dusty Brown with Billy Flynn

Dusty Brown hasn't been heard from much lately: the harpist recorded a handful of 45s on the Parrot and Bandera labels in the 50s and worked the local circuit till the mid-60s, but since then he's played mostly occasional brief tours or one-off club gigs. Guitarist Flynn, with his unerring command of postwar Chicago blues, should bring out the best Brown still has in him. DW

BEST BUY SHOWCASE

2:30 PM Ruby Harris

One of only a handful of active blues violinists, Ruby Harris brings classical training to a blues-jazz style that's equal parts Claude "Fiddler" Williams, Papa John Creach, and Gatemouth Brown, with a touch of what sounds like stripped-down Jean-Luc Ponty. He's also a provocative songwriter: "Broken Glass Blues," from the self-released disc Almost Home (2001), links the psychic devastation of depression with the terror unleashed on Kristallnacht. DW

3:45 PM Tom Holland & the Shuffle Kings

Local guitarist Tom Holland has backed up John Primer, Sandra Hall, and Eddy Clearwater, among others, on both rhythm and slide. His band the Shuffle Kings released a self-titled CD last year; their faithful approach to the postwar Chicago style thankfully avoids the usual bar-band histrionics. DW

5 PM Steepwater Band

This south-side band has become a local favorite on the strength of a live show that's heavy on ballsy blues-rock and Allmans-style southern boogie. They can get carried away onstage, but their self-released 2001 debut, Brother to the Snake, demonstrated promising subtlety and taste. The follow-up, Dharmakaya (Funzalo), came out last month. DW

6:15 PM Nick Moss & the Flip Tops

Local guitarist and vocalist Nick Moss has served the obligatory apprenticeships--his mentors include Jimmy Dawkins and former Muddy Waters sidemen Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Jimmy Rogers--and what's more, he actually seems to have learned something in the process. His passionate fretwork makes every note count, and his emotionally focused vocals never descend into bathos; conversant both in traditional forms and in more contemporary rock and pop idioms, he's among the best of the modern-day Chicago blues revivalists. DW

7:30 PM Noah Wotherspoon Band

In past years young guitarist Noah Wotherspoon, supported by a versatile and energetic band he called the Stratocats, has brought some impressive Jorma Kaukonen-meets-Buddy Guy pyrotechnics to this stage. He can be counted on to make another good showing, but there's no telling what the band will sound like this time--Wotherspoon recently recruited a fresh batch of backing musicians. DW

CROSSROADS

2 PM Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson & the Magic Rockers

West-side guitarist Luther Johnson is the reason Lonnie Brooks had to ditch the stage name "Guitar Junior" after he hit Chicago in 1959: Johnson had dibs, and his chops were formidable enough to back up the claim. His slashing fretwork and impassioned vocals bear the stamp of fellow west-sider Magic Sam (his band is named after Sam's 1957 instrumental "Magic Rocker"), but Johnson occasionally stirs in a churning soul groove too--and since he shared lead-guitar duties with Bob Margolin in Muddy Waters's well-oiled 70s combo, he's also grounded in the traditional Windy City blues that predate the west-side movement. BD

4 PM Vasti Jackson

Jackson (see today's Juke Joint listing) plays with his full electric blues band on this set. DW

ROUTE 66 ROADHOUSE

3 PM Photographers' Round Robin with James Fraher, Marc PoKempner, Paul Natkin, Susan Greenberg and Eric Werner

Five Chicago photojournalists discuss the art (and business) of blues photography; you can see shots from Fraher in this pullout. DW

5 PM A Centennial Remembrance Moderated by Larry Hoffman with Jim O'Neal, Chris Strachwitz and Jerry Ricks

Bluesman Jerry Ricks joins three well-known historians and producers to discuss the lives and careers of the four musicians commemorated by this year's Blues Festival--Count Basie, William "Jazz" Gillum, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Clarence "Pinetop" Smith all would've turned 100 in 2004. DW

PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL

6 PM Nora Jean Bruso with the Carl Weathersby Blues Band

Nora Jean Bruso's self-released debut, Nora Jean Bruso Sings the Blues (2003), showcased her impressive multioctave range and broad tonal and emotional palette--but the Chicago vocalist also displayed a tendency to throw everything she has at everything she does, leaving little room for the music to breathe. Local guitarist Carl Weathersby, a veteran of Billy Branch's Sons of Blues, is similarly proficient in a wide array of styles, but like his partner here he has a weakness for overkill--making this a questionable pairing. DW

7 PM * C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band

Accordionist C.J. Chenier, son of Clifton, took over his father's band when the zydeco pioneer died in 1987. Like his famous dad, C.J. is both an innovator and a traditionalist: he borrows from rock, R & B, and contemporary pop without distorting the harmonic and rhythmic patterns--two-step dances, waltzes--that characterize the genre. DW

PM * Lonnie Brooks 70th Year Celebration with his Family Band

Considering the ebullience he radiates onstage, it's hard to believe that Lonnie Brooks celebrated his 70th birthday on December 18. Under the name Guitar Junior, the Louisiana native scored a pair of Gulf Coast hits, "Family Rules" and "The Crawl," back in the 50s; it took him a while to establish himself on the competitive Chicago blues circuit, but his incendiary vocals and flashy guitar work (he was playing with his teeth long before it became a cliche) eventually landed him a deal with Alligator Records--and the 1979 Alligator release Bayou Lightning still stands as a brilliant example of Brooks's synthesis of swamp pop and Chicago blues. Music is now the family business, with sons Ronnie and Wayne following in their father's footsteps. BD

SATURDAY, JUNE 12

JUKE JOINT

NOON Johnnie Mae Dunson

Octogenarian Johnnie Mae Dunson's burnished soprano wail and flamboyant stage presence--one part wizened elder, two parts hot-to-trot funky grandma--are surefire crowd-pleasers. Dunson gigged sporadically around town in the 40s and 50s, played drums for her friend Jimmy Reed, and wrote a few tunes for him in the 60s, all of which at least arguably justifies her status as a Chicago blues "rediscovery." DW

1 PM * Alvin Youngblood Hart

A provocative and versatile revivalist, singer and guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart segues easily from ghosts-of-the-ancestors Delta classics to grinding urban blues workouts or Captain Beefheart covers; his original tunes are inflected with hip-hop, dub, ska, and even surf rock. DW

2 PM Chainsaw Dupont

David "Chainsaw" Dupont's 2003 debut, Lake St. Lullaby: An Unfinished Blues Opera (Blues Warrior), is nowhere near as overblown as its title: the local singer and guitarist plays passionate, thoughtfully structured solos, and his lyrics intelligently tweak blues stereotypes (the strutting badass, the country naif in the big city). This is a solo acoustic set; he'll play with an electric band later today on the Front Porch stage. DW

3:30 PM Harry Manx

Imagine post-hippie icon Shawn Phillips moonlighting as a rootsy bluesman: Manx's signature instrument is a sitarlike modified guitar with 20 strings, called a Mohan veena; he favors mischievous puns (his album titles include West Eats Meet and Road Ragas) and the usual quasi-Eastern meditations on life, love, and loss. The amazing thing is, it works: Manx's cosmic-blues lyrics sound like the product of hard-won insight, and his guitar playing is technically riveting and emotionally complex. DW

FRONT PORCH

1 PM Killer Ray & the Killer Ray Blues Band

Before Ray Allison recast himself as a guitarist and bandleader about a decade ago, he was a first-call drummer--his resume includes stints with James Cotton and Muddy Waters, among others. His repertoire is based in the Chicago postwar style, and his ebullient onstage personality goes a long way toward redeeming his unremarkable recycled riffs. DW

2:30 PM Aaron Moore

Mississippi native Aaron Moore arrived in Chicago in 1951, but remained on the periphery of the city's blues circuit during its heyday. Though the pianist didn't need to play to pay the bills (he held down a municipal job for 36 years), he eventually landed freelance gigs behind the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter. Now 76, he's been turning up at north-side clubs since the mid-90s; with his no-frills meat-and-potatoes style, influenced by barrelhouse piano master Roosevelt Sykes and the imposing Memphis Slim, he gets the job done, hammering out well-timed chords and rolling bass lines under his warm vocals. BD

3 PM Ben Sidran

An internationally acclaimed jazz pianist and educator, Ben Sidran has worked with the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison and wrote "Space Cowboy" with Steve Miller. He has an elegant swing and a pop-influenced feel for melody--but if I'd been asked to book an artist who could shed light on the ongoing link between blues and jazz, I would've picked tenor sax shaman Fred Anderson instead. DW

3:45 PM Pinetop Perkins

Ninety years old and recovering from a recent auto accident that broke his right arm, Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins is still the reigning king of Chicago blues pianists--he's worn that crown ever since Sunnyland Slim passed away in 1995. Best known as Muddy Waters's 1970s piano player (he succeeded Otis Spann in that exalted position in 1969), Perkins can still pound out a lively boogie with verve; more often than not, though, he sticks to downbeat numbers, where his rippling, rumbling ivories complement his ruminative vocals. Though he didn't write his signature workout, "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie"--Clarence "Pinetop" Smith did, way back in 1928--Perkins has most certainly made it his own. BD

4:30 PM * Alvin Youngblood Hart

See today's Juke Joint listing.

6 PM Chainsaw DuPont

See today's Juke Joint listing.

BEST BUY SHOWCASE

1 PM Madman Blues Band

This local bar band's high-energy mix of southern blues-rock and Chicago blues standards is unremarkable but familiar--just the thing if you're not really paying attention. Well, party on. DW

2:30 PM Sidewinders

Another local crew of roadhouse warriors, the Sidewinders goose their rootsy, amiably raucous blues-rock with shots of western swing and impish surf guitar. DW

3:45 PM Howard & the White Boys

Howard McCullum and his crew are still flogging their shtick, an ongoing exercise in dubious taste (and equally dubious musicianship). DW

5 PM Philipp Fankhauser & the Memphis Soul Connection

Swiss guitarist and singer Philipp Fankhauser toured the States with Johnny Copeland in the 90s, but he's still known mostly in Europe--he returned to Switzerland in 2000, a few years after Copeland's death. His new CD, Talk to Me (Memphis International), benefits from roomy production and punchy playing (the Memphis Horns are among the guest musicians), but neither can quite compensate for Fankhauser's flat-timbred, workmanlike vocals. DW

6:15 PM Midwest Blues All-Stars

Unlike many aspiring blues bands, Jimmy "Blues Harp" Davis and his mates have the good sense to avoid histrionics. Unfortunately, they also seem to be avoiding new ideas, or even interesting variations on old ones. DW

7:30 PM Nigel Mack & the Blues Attack

In his solo work, Canadian harpist and guitarist Nigel Mack is versatile, straightforward, and unmannered; his lyrics confront sociopolitical issues like environmental devastation along with more conventional blues themes. Even backed by an electric band, he should bring a welcome dose of class to a festival stage that's all too often dedicated to blooze-and-barf frat-boy excess. DW

CROSSROADS

1:30 PM Cyrus Hayes featuring Lady Lee

West-side harpist Cyrus Hayes shines most brightly on soul-blues ballads, where his distinctive high tenor makes him sound simultaneously street-hardened and vulnerable. His wife Lady Lee offers stentorian versions of contemporary standards, like Koko Taylor's version of "Wang Dang Doodle." DW

3:30 PM Vance Kelly & the Backstreet Blues Band

Kelly's repertoire runs from rough-edged covers of Chicago blues standards to more modern pop, soul, and soul-blues fare. The south-side guitarist has never made a recording that does him justice, so catch him live for the best he has to offer. DW

ROUTE 66 ROADHOUSE

2 PM Blues on Radio moderated by bob porter with Jonny Meister (WXPN), Steve McKinney (WSSD), Tom Marker (WXRT), Niles Frantz (WBEZ), Pervis Spann (WVON) and Steve Cushing (Blues Before Sunrise)

For a city that's still considered a national nexus for the genre, Chicago has a terrible modern-day track record when it comes to broadcasting the blues on mainstream radio. At this panel discussion, moderated by veteran producer and archivist Bob Porter, you'll hear from a handful of courageous souls who continue to keep the music on the air, despite ever-tightening formats and an increasingly corporatized market. DW

3:45 PM Legend of Robert Johnson Moderated by Larry Hoffman with Barry Lee Pearson and Elijah Wald

Author Elijah Wald has just published Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad), a provocative demystification of Johnson that has already sparked lively debate in the blues community. Wald is joined by Barry Lee Pearson, coauthor of last year's Robert Johnson: Lost and Found (University of Illinois Press), for this discussion of the legends that have guaranteed Johnson's continuing influence even as they impair the public's understanding of him. DW

PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL

5 PM Basie 'n' the Blues featuring the Burgess Gardner Orchestra with Barbara Morrison

One of the fest's very few concessions to the jazzy side of the blues, this set places the expansive orchestra of veteran Chicago trumpeter and music educator Burgess Gardner at the service of Los Angeles-based vocalist Barbara Morrison, whose sassy, confident delivery has earned her comparisons to Esther Phillips, Dinah Washington, and even Ella Fitzgerald; she sounds just as comfy torching it up on a smoky ballad or scatting through a jazz number as she does singing earthy 12-bar blues. This set is billed as a tribute to Count Basie's big band, and Morrison knows the territory intimately: her 2002 album Thinking of You, Joe (Blue Lady) is dedicated to Basie's featured vocalist in the late 50s, Joe Williams. BD

6:40 PM * Chris Thomas King's 21st Century Blues

Chris Thomas King has plenty of traditionalist credentials: he's recorded tributes to Robert Johnson, contributed to the sound track of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (in which he played the role of Delta legend Tommy Johnson), and done a silent impersonation of Texas singer Blind Willie Johnson for Wim Wenders's entry in Martin Scorsese's PBS series The Blues. But that's only one side of the coin: In 2002 the Louisiana guitarist released Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues (on his own 21st Century Blues label), an audacious challenge to practically everything blues purists hold dear. The album lays traditional blues instruments like harmonica and Dobro over confrontational hip-hop beats, and King raps more than he sings; his current stage show features a turntablist and incorporates drum loops into the live mix. He's trying to rekindle the iconoclastic spirit of the blues and face down the conservative aesthetic that leads even advocates for the genre to adopt a narrow definition of "authenticity." Even the most flexible listeners might not recognize what King does as blues--but if he inspires enough musicians, what counts as "blues" could get a whole lot more open-ended. DW

PM * Otis Clay & His City Limit Band

Although he cut some of his biggest-selling singles--"Trying to Live My Life Without You" in 1972, "If I Could Reach Out" in '73--for Hi Records in Memphis, Otis Clay is a Chicago soul man through and through. The Mississippi-born vocalist, who grew up singing gospel, launched his secular recording career here in 1965 with a series of spellbinding singles for One-derful! Records--"That's How It Is (When You're in Love)" was a national hit in '67--and he's been a mainstay of Chicago's soul-blues scene ever since. Clay has also made occasional returns to his sanctified roots, reestablishing himself in the gospel field; his pipes can work magic no matter what the genre. BD

SUNDAY, JUNE 13

JUKE JOINT

NOON Grana Louise Sings Spirituals

Vocalist Grana Louise is best known as a hot-blooded blues chanteuse, but her voice carries a touch of churchy uplift even when her material is at its funkiest--we can expect an inspiring set from her here. DW

1:30 PM Kenny Brown & Cedric Burnside

Guitarist Kenny Brown learned the blues directly from the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside, and his style remains rooted in the single-chord "trance blues" still popular in the hill country of northern Mississippi. Cedric Burnside, R.L.'s grandson, began drumming with Brown as a teenager; their grooves sound effortless, but they're irresistible. DW

2:45 PM Paul "Wine" Jones

After Fat Possum introduced Paul "Wine" Jones to the world in 1998 with his first full-length, Mule (and its follow-up, 1999's Pucker Up Buttercup), the native of Belzoni, Mississippi, quickly became Exhibit A in the label's lineup of "authentic" holy primitives. There's some real substance to go with the hype, though: Jones's barbed-wire guitar work is both borderline manic and intensely focused (by day he's a professional welder), evoking the harrowing blend of torment, catharsis, and ecstasy that lies at the heart of the blues. DW

4 PM T-Model Ford

James "T-Model" Ford is probably 81 or 82 (he's not sure), but he didn't learn to play the guitar till his late 50s--and didn't begin his recording career until 1997, when Fat Possum released Pee-Wee Get My Gun. (His latest is 2002's Bad Man.) Ford once served time on a chain gang for murder, and his music is uncompromisingly rough-edged and violent; the menace and braggadocio in his vocals often makes him sound like a forebearer of today's gangsta rappers. DW

Front Porch

1 PM * Aubrey Ghent Sacred Steel

Lap steel guitarist Aubrey Ghent is one of the major figures in a subgenre of gospel that's become known as "sacred steel," which arose in the 1930s at the services of a Pentecostal sect known as the Keith Dominion. His instrumental invocations of the Holy Spirit--which can sound uncannily like an ethereal voice--are among the most haunting and uplifting in any contemporary music. DW

2:30 PM Ken Saydak

Pianist Ken Saydak moved to Colorado last year, ending a long tenure as an invaluable Chicago session player. He has an impressive range: he can thunder away at the sort of complex boogie bass lines that are fast disappearing in this synthesizer-dominated age, or shift into a mellower groove and conjure up a four-in-the-morning ambience. His gruff, gravelly voice takes a little getting used to, but it usually suits his well-chosen covers and sly, understated originals. BD

4 PM Kenny Neal & Billy Branch

Not so long ago, Chicagoan Billy Branch and Baton Rouge native Kenny Neal were both rated among the most promising youngbloods in the blues, and since they recently teamed up for the album Double Take (Alligator), showcasing them together here makes sense. You won't find a blues harpist more proficient than Branch anywhere on the planet; he's a breathtakingly daring soloist, yet never sacrifices taste or tradition to indulge in empty pyrotechnics. Neal doubles on slashing guitar and pungent harmonica; he's an ace at funky Louisiana swamp blues, just like his dad, harpist Raful Neal. And both men have coarse, grainy voices, which should complement each other well. BD

5:30 PM Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan

This revue will feature the same Fat Possum recording artists--Kenny Brown & Cedric Burnside, Paul "Wine" Jones, T-Model Ford--who appeared on the Juke Joint stage earlier today. DW

BEST BUY SHOWCASE

1 PM Steve Arvey & Kraig Kenning

Acoustic guitarists Arvey and Kenning have become an institution on this stage; I'd call their steady-rolling re-creations of vintage blues styles "retro," but Kenning's lyrics add a contemporary folk flavor. DW

2:30 PM Big G & the Real Deal

Big G is Big George Millspaugh, who fronted the Pearl Handle Band back in the 70s and early 80s. He and the Real Deal play Chicago-style blues infused with southern boogie rock. DW

3:45 PM Tad Robinson

A deep streak of soul has always distinguished Tad Robinson's take on the blues. The Indiana-based singer spent most of the 80s and 90s in Chicago, steadily expanding his musical horizons beyond traditional 12-bar forms; he shone during a stint as resident vocalist with Dave Specter's Bluebirds, and he's also an excellent harpist whose solos never degenerate into showboating. Robinson's new disc, Did You Ever Wonder? (Severn), blends thrilling blue-eyed soul (notably a breezy revival of the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose's "Too Late to Turn Back Now") with satisfying contemporary blues (e.g., a shattering remake of Little Willie John's "Suffering With the Blues"). BD

5 PM Molly Nova & the Hawk

Electric violinist Molly Nova and her percussionist partner, Turk E Krause (aka Wildturkeyhawk), return with their multitextured blues-rock--there's plenty of post-Allmans jam-boogie energy, but precious little depth to the lyrics. DW

6:15 PM Rob Stone & the C-Notes

In their own unpretentious way, harpist Rob Stone and company have become one of Chicago's most enjoyable postwar preservation bands. Though Stone has obviously borrowed many of his ideas from Little Walter, his playing never sounds mannered or stale; over the last year his vocals have begun to gather potency as well. DW

CROSSROADS

1:30 PM Deitra Farr and special guests Les Getrex and Ardella Williams

With her supple alto, Deitra Farr is equally at home on 12-bar Chicago fare or more complex soul and R & B numbers, and her onstage presence combines dignity and sass in vintage fashion. Les Getrex is a New Orleans R & B journeyman whose resume includes a stint as a guitarist in Fats Domino's orchestra and several years with zydeco star Rockin' Dopsie. Ardella Williams, daughter of Chicago blues icon Jazz Gillum ("Key to the Highway"), rounds out the bill. DW

3:30 PM Swamp Dogg

Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams is as famous as a hustler as he is as a bluesman: he's been a producer, an arranger, a label owner, a country songsmith, and a jingle writer, among other things. His own recording career dates back to the mid-50s (when he was billed as "Little Jerry Williams"), and his style is a pastiche of R & B, contemporary and vintage soul, blues, and rock. He's known for his stands on political and social issues (he made Nixon's enemies list for his opposition to the Vietnam war) as well as for his surreal view of love and romance ("Mama's Baby, Daddy's Maybe," "Wifesitter"). DW

ROUTE 66 ROADHOUSE

2 PM Words With the Songwriters with Bob Jones, Swamp Dogg, Willie Clayton, Frank-O Johnson and Marge Sampson

A panel of well-known and influential blues singers and songwriters discuss their craft; Jones and Sampson are both based locally. DW

3:30 PM 2004: Just Another Year with Dick Shurman, Bruce Iglauer, Jim O'Neal, Larry Hoffman, Sandra Pointer-Jones and Deitra Farr

This discussion aims to provide a sober perspective on last year's widely hyped Year of the Blues campaign and its aftereffects. Panelists include Living Blues magazine cofounder Jim O'Neal, Alligator Records head Bruce Iglauer, blues singer Deitra Farr, writer and producer Larry Hoffman, local freelance journalist Sandra Pointer-Jones, and Chicago-based blues scholar and producer Dick Shurman. DW

PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL

5 PM Billy Boy Arnold with the James Wheeler Blues Band featuring Ken Saydak

The Yardbirds were huge fans of harpist Billy Boy Arnold: they faithfully covered his mid-50s Vee-Jay sides "I Wish You Would" (driven by the beat made famous by his former bandmate Bo Diddley) and "I Ain't Got You." Arnold's amplified harmonica work, heavily influenced by the call-and-response riffs of John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, remains succinct and cutting, and his vocal delivery is uncommonly smooth. In the past decade the Chicago native has released two fine albums on Alligator and a third on Stony Plain; his penchant for potent, swaggering shuffles is as pronounced as ever. BD

6:10 PM * Michael Burks

A Milwaukee native now based in Arkansas, Burks takes after Albert King: his gruff baritone sounds both aggressive and wounded, his guitar tone is keening and supple, and he salts his sharply articulated lines with tight clusters of notes. But his attack is harsher than King's, incorporating influences from rock and contemporary R & B, and he's developed his own voice as a songwriter as well; both his originals and his treatment of covers demonstrate a refreshing degree of nuance and emotional complexity. DW

7:10 PM * E.C. Scott & Smoke

E.C. Scott is a relative newcomer--the California-born vocalist recorded her first single in 1988, and she's only been touring nationally since the mid-90s. But she's already earned a reputation as a leading light among contemporary blueswomen: whether singing the praises of the flesh ("One Night With You"), signifying at would-be players ("That'll Do Man"), or advising a friend to get out of an abusive relationship ("If You're a Good Woman"), she celebrates feminine power with unfettered joy and a sly undercurrent of good-natured irony. DW

:20 PM * Willie Clayton

Willie Clayton is one of the very few contemporary blues artists on mainstream black radio: his current single, "Love Mechanic" (N-Zone), is in rotation on V-103. His churchy vocals and playful raunchiness would ordinarily place him squarely in the modern soul-blues camp, but his poppy melodies and slick arrangements help his crossover appeal. Clayton's career began in the late 60s, when he was still a teenager; he moved to Chicago in 1971, and since the mid-90s he's been one of the hottest draws on the southern soul-blues circuit, and he shows no signs of slowing down. DW

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/James Fraher,.

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