The Reader’s guide to the 2017 Chicago Blues Festival | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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The Reader’s guide to the 2017 Chicago Blues Festival

The fest refreshes itself with a move to Millennium Park and an adventurous bill that includes Rhymefest, Rhiannon Giddens, and Ronnie Baker Brooks.

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Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park - SCOTT STEWART
  • Scott Stewart
  • Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park

The big news about this year's Chicago Blues Festival is that it's followed in the footsteps of Jazz Fest and moved to Millennium Park. This should finally guarantee state-of-the-art sound, at least on the main stage at Pritzker Pavilion—the system there leaves Petrillo's PA in the dust. The change of scenery seems to have had a salutary effect on the bookings as well—at the very least, they present more of a challenge to genre boundaries than those at some previous Blues Fests. The 2017 edition includes rapper Rhymefest, eclectic roots-music innovator Rhiannon Giddens, R&B-flavored southern-soul chanteuse JJ Thames, and forward-looking blues-based artists such as Ronnie Baker Brooks, the Cedric Burnside Project (who update the venerable north Mississippi "trance-blues" style with anarchic punk spirit), and Gary Clark Jr.

Of course, it wouldn't be a blues festival without plenty of rootsy music to satisfy the traditionalists, and this year the old-­schoolers include former Muddy Waters and Magic Slim sideman John Primer, 1960s Stax Records soul legend William Bell, veteran harp man Billy Branch, beloved soul-blues pioneer Denise LaSalle, and elder statesman Jimmy Johnson. The seven acts the Reader has featured in its coverage—Branch, Giddens, Baker Brooks, Bell, LaSalle, Johnson, and Rhymefest—draw from both groups, representing the scope and breadth of this year's festival. All seven definitely deserve spots on your must-see list, but they're by no means the only artists worth checking out. Explore, investigate, and discover!


Chicago Blues Festival
Fri 6/9 through Sun 6/11, 11 AM-9:30 PM, Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph, free, all ages


The festival's new layout is cozier than the old Grant Park arrangement—it looks as though better sound quality will probably come at the expense of some elbow room. The Crossroads Stage (which emphasizes Chicago artists) is on the south promenade, southeast of the Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the Bean. The Mississippi Juke Joint Stage (which mostly books southern artists) is on the north promenade, northeast of Cloud Gate. The Front Porch Stage (which features mostly acoustic artists and smaller bands) is on the Harris Theater rooftop terrace, south of Randolph and north of Pritzker Pavilion (where the headliners perform each night). The Blues Village in Wrigley Square, near the intersection of Randolph and Michigan, hosts nonprofits that sponsor or support the blues—and two of them, the Windy City Blues Society and Fernando Jones's Blues Kids Foundation, present live music throughout the weekend on the Blues Village Stage. All events are free.  v

Rhymefest - CHANDLER WEST/FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
  • Rhymefest

Rhymefest works the links between hip-hop and the blues

The veteran rapper’s devotion to Chicago’s black cultural legacy finds a new outlet in a Billy Branch remix.

By Leor Galil


Billy Branch - JOHNNY WHEELER
  • Johnny Wheeler
  • Billy Branch

Harmonica master Billy Branch celebrates 40 years leading the Sons of Blues

So many current stars have cut their teeth in Branch’s band that they could fill their own blues festival.

By David Whiteis


Jimmy Johnson - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Sun-Times Media
  • Jimmy Johnson

At age 88, late-blooming guitarist Jimmy Johnson enters his fifth decade in the blues

Syl’s older brother started out playing soul, but he came into his own as a bluesman in the late 1970s.

By Bill Dahl


William Bell - DAVID MCCLISTER
  • David McClister
  • William Bell

William Bell makes a triumphant return to Stax after more than 40 years

The veteran singer’s 2016 album This Is Where I Live has attracted new generations of fans to his classic southern soul.

By Bill Dahl


Denise LaSalle - ROGELIO V. SOLIS/AP PHOTO
  • Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo
  • Denise LaSalle

Denise LaSalle earned her crown in southern soul—and wears it in the blues

In a career spanning 50 years, the Mississippi native has proved herself a riveting performer and chart-topping songwriter.

By Bill Dahl


Ronnie Baker Brooks (right) with Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater - SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES
  • Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Ronnie Baker Brooks (right) with Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater

Guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks balances his legacy with his drive to innovate

His father, the late Lonnie Brooks, appears on the new Times Have Changed—alongside Memphis rapper Al Kapone.

By David Whiteis


Rhiannon Giddens - DAN WINTER
  • Dan Winter
  • Rhiannon Giddens

Folk polymath Rhiannon Giddens honors the musical cultures of the oppressed

The cofounder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops sings fables of struggle from a diversity of peoples and eras.

By David Whiteis


Fans at the 2015 Blues Festival - BRIAN JACKSON/FOR THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times
  • Fans at the 2015 Blues Festival

The complete schedule for the 2017 Blues Festival

Every set on all five stages in Millennium Park, from Friday morning through Sunday night

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

The best of the weekend’s blues outside Millennium Park

Your extracurricular options include Eddie Shaw, Peaches Staten, L’Roy, and Eddy “the Chief” Clearwater.

By David Whiteis

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