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

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The Reader's guide to the Chicago Blues Festival

There's more than Mavis: Other must-see acts include Texas Johnny Brown, Floyd Taylor, Joe Louis Walker, and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band

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The outcome was in doubt for a while, but the Chicago Blues Festival has weathered the city's budget crisis for another year and remains a freestanding, three-day event (it was shortened from four days in 2009). The challenge for the festival programmers at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events—a hybrid of the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor's Office of Special Events, formed by bizarre bureaucratic wrangling last year—is to fill those three days with interesting music using starkly limited resources. The solution, once again, has been to focus on local and regional acts, with a handful of carefully selected marquee attractions from out of town. The resulting mix of traditional 12-bar blues and modern southern soul-blues should appeal to most if not all of the festival's usual audience, though it should be noted that there are plenty of more iconoclastic blues-based artists out there—some of them experimenting with ideas borrowed from hip-hop—who have yet to get their day in the sun at Grant Park.

Six of the eight headliners at the Petrillo Music Shell this year are paying tribute to artists who've passed away, which might seem like an ominous if inadvertent commentary on the future of the blues—but if you choose to see the glass as half full, you'll notice that most of those sets feature first-rate musicians who are widely acknowledged in their own right. The duo of Milton Hopkins and Jewel Brown is an especially savory booking, as is under­recognized fretboard genius Texas Johnny Brown; both acts honor Milton's cousin Lightnin' Hopkins on Friday. And the lineup for Sunday's Koko Taylor tribute ought to help settle the question of whether there's anyone worthy to carry on Queen Koko's legacy.

On Saturday the Petrillo showcases southern-­soul mainstay Floyd Taylor, son of the beloved Johnnie Taylor, in his festival debut—perhaps a jarring segue from the rootsy Muddy Waters tribute that precedes him, but sure to be a fine set. And on Sunday ageless Chicago soul-gospel diva Mavis Staples will no doubt close the festival on an appropriately sanctified and celebratory note.

As usual, though, the smaller daytime stages will provide some of the most exciting music. Joe Louis Walker plays a high-energy fusion of blues, rock, and postfunk, and Chicago veterans Mary Lane, Jimmy Dawkins, and Eddie C. Campbell have all maintained their chops and their inner fire over the years—as has saxophonist and longtime Howlin' Wolf sideman Eddie Shaw. Billy Branch continues to blaze trails while staying true to the Chicago harp tradition he reveres; in the hands of the irrepressible Sharde Thomas, who leads the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, an even older tradition remains alive and well.

The layout of the festival is similar to what it's been in the past. The Petrillo Music Shell, where most of the bigger names play, is just northeast of Columbus and Jackson. The Front Porch Stage, which features mostly acoustic artists and smaller bands, is on the lawn south of Jackson and east of Columbus. The Crossroads Stage is at the east end of Jackson at Lake Shore Drive. The Mississippi Juke Joint, which this year hosts the panel discussions and presentations formerly held at the Route 66 Roadhouse tent, is on Columbus between Jackson and Congress, just east of the Lincoln statue. On Columbus between Jackson and Monroe, nonprofits such as the Koko Taylor Celebrity Aid Foundation and the Windy City Blues Society will set up tents and booths, and WCBS is sponsoring a stage that will feature live blues all weekend. All events are free. —DW

Thinking Outside the Park

Chicago usually manages to squeeze a few blues-themed events into Blues Festival week, and the most notable this year is probably the official launch of the Howlin' Wolf Foundation, a charity led by Wolf's step­daughters Bettye Kelly and Barbra Marks. On Thu 6/7 at the Blues Heaven Foundation (in the old Chess Records building at 2120 S. Michigan), the foundation will award its first Howlin' Wolf scholarships, and the entertainment will include Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang, Billy Branch, Carlos Johnson, Eddie Taylor Jr., and Big Time Sarah; the festivities begin at 2 PM.

As usual, Chicago's blues clubs will be going strong all weekend—the best known will be in the Reader's regular music listings. Buddy Guy's Legends hosts a kickoff jam Wed 6/6 with the Brooks Family Blues Dynasty, Shemekia Copeland, Lurrie Bell, and many more; the club also presents music from 11 AM into the wee hours all three days of Blues Fest. Some venues not known for blues are also piggybacking on the festival: SPACE in Evanston has booked Charlie Musselwhite on Thu 6/7 and Joe Louis Walker on Sat 6/9, and the schedule at Reggie's Music Joint includes a "Chicago Women in the Blues" showcase on Fri 6/8 and an afterparty on Sat 6/9 that doubles as Rockin' Johnny Burgin's celebration of his new album, Grim Reaper. (Both Musselwhite and Burgin appear in this week's Artist on Artist.)

Several other clubs are worthy of special mention too. Rosa's Lounge will host an afterfest set featuring Funky Mojodaddy on Sun 6/10 at 9:30 PM. Legendary Chicago soul singer Otis Clay is now the proprietor of Madge's Lounge (2000 S. Pulaski, 773-277-1161), and on Fri 6/8 he'll hold forth there himself, backed by Tyrone Davis's old band Platinum. The venerable Lee's Unleaded Blues will have music all three nights, and Wash's Lounge (4223 W. Madison, 773 638-1900) presents the band First Impressions on Sat 6/9. For the Good Times Lounge (5545 S. Damen, 773-737-0184) and Gene's Playmate Lounge (4239 W. Cermak, 773-590-9127) both host their usual Sunday-night sets, by Killer Ray Allison and Willie White, respectively. On Sun 6/10 Ted & Jackie's (5813 W. Madison, 773-378-8389) features vocalist Willie D, and the Water Hole (1400 S. Western, 312-243-7988) will augment its usual Friday-night set from singer-­guitarist Kjaz with a Blues Fest preparty on Thursday and shows on Saturday and Sunday. —DW


Crossroads Stage

11:15 AM The Jimmy Reed Family

12:45 PM Quintus McCormick As a guitarist Chicago bluesman Quintus McCormick combines the emotional thrust of the rockers who were his early heroes (Hendrix, Page) with the articulate craftsmanship of blues idols like Albert King—and like King, he sings in a powerfully charged soul-blues baritone. McCormick's output on Delmark—Hey Jodie! (2009), Put It on Me! (2011), and Still Called the Blues (2012)—showcases his blend of traditional and contemporary blues, soul, and R&B. Because he has a somewhat low-key stage presence, you have to meet him halfway to feel the full force of what he's putting down, but it's well worth the effort. —DW

2:30 PM Zora Young Chicago singer Zora Young has rural Mississippi roots that you can hear in her coruscated rasp, but she's also an urbane stylist whose phrasing and delivery bring nuance to even her grittiest material. Her weathered vocal timbre bespeaks power and vulnerability, and she can effortlessly modulate from a smoldering croon to a full-bodied gospel shout, then throttle all the way back to a kittenish purr. Young has recorded for several labels, but she's best known for her work on Delmark: The French Connection, a 2009 collection of live and studio recordings, captures her unique blend of flamboyance, intensity, and intimacy. —DW

4:15 PM Joe Louis Walker Internationally acclaimed guitarist and vocalist Joe Louis Walker really ought to be playing on the Petrillo stage. His discography, which stretches back to the mid-80s and includes more than 20 albums, showcases his roots-rich but exploratory guitar work in a dazzling range of settings: traditional acoustic blues, postwar boilerplate, streetsy funk, outward-bound blues-rock. His latest, Hellfire (his first for Chicago's Alligator label), explodes with bombast even as its lyrics look inward, and Walker's solo work is taut with musical intelligence and emotional focus even at its most furious. He also plays Thu 6/7 at 9 PM at Buddy Guy's Legends and Sat 6/9 at 9 PM at SPACE in Evanston. —DW

Mississippi Juke Joint Stage

11:30 AM Panel discussion on Lightnin' Hopkins with Roger Wood, Chris Strachwitz, and Alan Govenar

12:45 PM Ol' Skool Revue from the Delta Music Institute of Delta State University


1:45 PM Eddie C. Campbell Chicago guitarist Eddie C. Campbell was already a seasoned veteran in 1977 when he recorded his now legendary breakout LP, King of the Jungle. He moved to Europe in 1984, where he cut Let's Pick It! for the Dutch label Black Magic, and returned to Chicago in 1992. He's continued to record sporadically, building an almost mythic reputation among aficionados, and on his latest, Spider Eating Preacher (Delmark), he's in vintage form: his leads are alternately stinging, subtle, and spacey, complementing his surreal lyrics, and he tackles everything from his trademark deep-pocket shuffles to a fatback-flavored cover of the Ohio Players' "Skin Tight." —DW

3 PM Vasti Jackson

4:30 PM Johnny Rawls

6 PM Jam session with Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith

Front Porch Stage

Noon Blues in the Schools with Stone Academy students, Eric Noden, Katherine Davis, and Erwin Helfer

1:30 PM Fernando Jones & My Band!

3 PM Matthew Skoller Band

4:30 PM Big James & the Chicago Playboys

Windy City Blues Society Stage

11 AM Chicago Kingsnakes

Noon Steepwater Band

1 PM "Chicago Delta": Mississippi Gabe Carter, the Black Oil Brothers

2:45 PM Jimmy Dawkins Veteran west-side guitarist Jimmy Dawkins won international acclaim with his first LP, the 1969 Delmark release Fast Fingers, but he's never been a speed demon. His style emphasizes brooding, coarsely amplified midrange meditations, appropriate to the dark themes that characterize his lyrics. Crowds expecting pyrotechnical "blooze" from Mr. Fast Fingers may be disappointed, but Dawkins has never cared to play to that sort of fan: over the course of his career, he's made some of the most intense and even harrowing music in the modern blues canon. —DW

4 PM Cash Box Kings

5:15 PM Rob Stone

6:15 PM Acoustic blues session

Petrillo Music Shell


5:50 PM Reverend KM Williams An ordained minister and former street musician, Dallas-based Reverend KM Williams cites heavyweights of the Chicago electric blues sound as influences, but judging from his minimalist, archaic-sounding style—he often plays a homemade single-string cigar-box guitar—he's got at least as much in common with preamplification performers and modern avant-gardists like James "Blood" Ulmer. Williams is typically accompanied only by a percussionist who plays washboard or drums (if he's accompanied at all), and his guitar is propulsive and droning but surprisingly delicate in its complexity. He's surely aware of the long tradition of men of the cloth who've doubled as blues shouters, and his stentorian singing voice places him firmly within it. —MR

7 PM Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown With so many blues greats no longer with us, folks who once walked among giants are often deemed giants now themselves. This Texas duo might not have risen to that status just yet, but guitarist Milton Hopkins is a cousin of the great Lightnin' Hopkins (tonight's Petrillo bookings honor his centennial); he's worked as a session guitarist for the Duke/Peacock label and spent nearly a decade touring with B.B. King, as well as logging time on the road with Johnny Ace, Big Mama Thornton, Gatemouth Brown, and others. Before retiring from music in 1971, jazz singer Jewel Brown worked with organist Earl Grant and spent nine years with Louis Armstrong; she's returned to performing, albeit sporadically, in recent years. They joined forces for a new self-titled album on Austin label Dialtone, combining jump blues, jazzy balladry, and old pop standards like "Cry Me a River." These two may be B-list names, but they've got the kind of personality and charm that's facing extinction in the blues world. —PM

8:30 PM Texas Johnny Brown Direct links to the postwar Lone Star blues tradition are scarce these days, but the career of guitarist Texas Johnny Brown stretches back to the glory days of the 40s, when T-Bone Walker's pristine lead lines inspired so many. Brown, who also cites jazz great Charlie Christian as a primary influence, played with Houston boogie pianist Amos Milburn in his band the Chickenshackers in the late 40s; he recorded under his own name for Atlantic and Decca in 1949 and '50, and later became a session guitarist at Houston label Duke/Peacock, lending his light-fingered licks to Junior Parker and Bobby Bland (he wrote Bland's classic "Two Steps From the Blues"). Brown finally began to make a name for himself in the 90s, and his burnished vocals and crisp, concise fretwork remain a thoroughly satisfying reminder of what electric Texas blues used to be. —BD

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