The Reader’s guide to the 2018 Chicago Blues Festival | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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The Reader’s guide to the 2018 Chicago Blues Festival

The fest expands its footprint in Millennium Park with a diverse lineup that includes boogie-woogie pianist Erwin Helfer, southern soul-blues star Ms. Jody, and the Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band with Shardé Thomas.

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Gary Clark Jr. onstage at Pritzker Pavilion during the 2017 Chicago Blues Festival - COURTESY OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO
  • Courtesy of the City of Chicago
  • Gary Clark Jr. onstage at Pritzker Pavilion during the 2017 Chicago Blues Festival

For its second year in Millennium Park, the Chicago Blues Festival has expanded, adding a new stage and extending the hours of an existing one. Whether more quantity translates into more quality, though, remains to be seen. A few of the bookings adopt a refreshingly creative definition of the blues—Vieux Farka Touré brings his Mali-to-Memphis roots-blues fusion to the Crossroads Stage on Saturday, for instance, and the flamboyant and impossible-­to-categorize Fantastic Negrito plays Pritzker Pavilion on Sunday. Boogie-woogie pianist Erwin Helfer makes a long-overdue and very welcome return to the festival, and thankfully the schedule also includes several major southern soul-blues artists: Willie Clayton, Ms. Jody, LJ Echols, and Chicago's own Nellie "Tiger" Travis.


Chicago Blues Festival
Fri 6/8 through Sun 6/10, 11 AM-9:30 PM, Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph, free, all-ages


The Reader's coverage focuses on five sterling artists whose music speaks to the past and future of the blues: Helfer, Clayton, Ms. Jody, 91-year-old R&B saxophonist and singer Gene "Daddy G" Barge, and the Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band with Shardé Thomas, granddaughter of the group's founder, Otha Turner. The rest of the lineup, while it includes many musicians of merit, also seems padded with more B-level acts than usual. This year's festival also offers little thematic consistency, aside from Friday's daylong tribute to Chicago's pioneering Delmark Records on the occasion of its 65th anniversary (and the preponderance of Delmark artists throughout the weekend). Earlier this spring, founder Bob Koester sold the venerable label, leaving its future as a major blues outlet in doubt.

On Saturday night the fest honors harmonica master Little Walter, and though this salute is just a single set, it's nonetheless a valuable acknowledgment of the blues' roots and heritage. If you're willing to look, you can find plenty of other gems on the bill, rough cut and otherwise. And the culminating Sunday-night set by Mavis Staples, Chicago's undisputed queen of soul and gospel, should provide sufficient benediction for even the crankiest critic.

Certain aspects of the festival's layout in Millennium Park remain unchanged, despite its reshuffling of venues. The Crossroads Stage, featuring local and national acts, is again on the south promenade, southeast of the Cloud Gate sculpture (aka "the Bean"). Likewise the Mississippi Juke Joint stage, primarily oriented toward southern artists, remains on the north promenade, northeast of the Bean. The eclectic Front Porch Stage, with extended hours for 2018, has moved from the roof of the Harris Theater to Wrigley Square, at the park's northwest corner near Randolph and Michigan. (It overlooks the area where nonprofit groups set up their tents, but the Blues Village Stage, booked by a couple of those organizations, isn't returning this year.) The old Front Porch location now hosts the new Rooftop Lounge, which feature mostly solo acts. All events are free. —David Whiteis


Gene Barge blew his sax on some of the wildest R&B hits of the 60s

The Blues Festival pays tribute to the 91-year-old “Daddy G” with a set with by his longest-running band, the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings.

by Bill Dahl


Willie Clayton still has his sterling voice as his career nears its golden anniversary

For his fourth appearance on the Blues Festival’s main stage, the southern soul king will be cooking with a full band—backup singers, horn players, and all.

by Bill Dahl


Boogie-woogie torchbearer Erwin Helfer upholds the dignity, joy, and humor of an antique style

The 82-year-old pianist may be Chicago’s last living link to a tradition that arose more than a century ago.

by David Whiteis


Shardé Thomas propels the Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band into a new century

The granddaughter of fife master Otha Turner flavors a Mississippi hill country tradition with modern hip-hop and R&B.

by David Whiteis


Southern soul-blues queen Ms. Jody always respects herself in the morning

She can get pretty raunchy, but never at the expense of her self-worth or good sense.

by David Whiteis


The complete schedule of the 2018 Chicago Blues Festival

Every set on all five stages in Millennium Park, from Friday morning through Sunday night—including Mavis Staples, Vieux Farka Touré, Fantastic Negrito, and dozens more


The weekend’s best blues beyond the fest

Your options outside Millennium Park include Shemekia Copeland, John Primer, and Selwyn Birchwood.

by David Whiteis


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