The economy continues to force music festivals nationwide to reconsider their missions, and the Chicago Blues Festival is no exception. In 2009 the Mayor's Office of Special Events cut the schedule back to three days from four, and that change remains in effect for 2010. The lineup includes a much higher percentage of locals than usual, and you'd have to go back many years to find fewer acts with star power on the bill. The good news, though, is that there are so many quality artists on the Chicago blues scene that a heavily local edition of Blues Fest can be interesting and even inspiring.
A day at this year's festival is very much like the kind of blues-club crawl that people from all over the world still come to Chicago to experience. From sophisticates like Erwin Helfer, who flavor their blues with jazz, to barnstormers like Carl Weathersby and Toronzo Cannon, who push into rock and funk territory, the locals on the bill both invoke and update tradition—Chicago clubgoers may not realize how fortunate they are to be able to hear them on a regular basis. Emissaries from other blues strongholds include Big George Brock from Saint Louis, Bobby Rush from Jackson, Mississippi, and Roy Roberts from Greensboro, North Carolina.
Most historians believe 2010 to be the centennial of Howlin' Wolf's birth, and the festival's various tributes to Wolf's legacy—including an interview with his stepdaughters and some of his most important sidemen on Friday at the Route 66 Roadhouse—give some historical depth to an event that's otherwise focused on modern blues. Though there are probably fewer artists this year playing contemporary southern soul-blues (still the most popular sound with African-American listeners), the presence of southern-circuit stalwarts like Bobby Rush, Barbara Carr, and T.K. Soul is another reminder that the blues is a living, evolving art form, and that to remain viable it incorporates rather than resists influences from other forms of music.
The lay of the land: 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 acts and small bands, is on the lawn south of Jackson and east of Columbus. The Route 66 Roadhouse, which hosts panel discussions and interviews with musicians, authors, and other notables, is at Columbus and Jackson. 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, whose bookings lean toward rootsier acts, both acoustic and electric, is south on Columbus near Balbo, just east of the Lincoln statue. Last year's Maxwell Street Corner "stage" (really more of an area), on Columbus between Jackson and Monroe, has been expanded into a Blues Village sponsored and programmed by the Windy City Blues Society and other local nonprofits, all of which will have tents or booths set up to distribute information and solicit memberships. The village includes several stages featuring dozens of local musicians.
The festival's most notable acts are described below. All events are free. —DW
11:30 AM Blues in the Schools featuring Eric Noden, Katherine Davis and the Stone Academy Blues Students, and more
1:30 PM Henry Gray and Andy Cornett
Eighty-five years old but frisky as ever on the 88s, Baton Rouge-based Henry Gray still lays down a mean boogie and pounds out swampy, tenacious downbeat blues. In the 50s he was one of Chicago's top pianists, backing the likes of Billy Boy Arnold, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers, and longtime boss Howlin' Wolf in the studio. Gray returned to his native Louisiana in 1968 and in the 80s emerged as a bandleader in his own right. Andy Cornett is his bassist and producer. —BD
3 PM Jimmy Dawkins and Tail Dragger
At his best, veteran Jimmy Dawkins can play some of the most emotionally harrowing blues you'll hear anywhere, with blistering midrange guitar and angst-ridden lyrics. James "Tail Dragger" Jones, on the other hand, is a juker whose wry humor and Howlin' Wolf-influenced vocals have been helping west-side gin mills get into the party spirit for decades. He recorded for Dawkins's Leric label in the 80s, and several of those sides appear on a new Delmark compilation drawn from the Leric catalog. —DW
5 PM Cafe R & B
6:30 PM Big George Brock & the Houserockers with George Brock Jr.
Saint Louis-based harpist and vocalist Big George rock has a pretty basic style, but what his fatback-and-rotgut sound lacks in sophistication it makes up for with the sweaty funk of a down-home juke on a Saturday night. —DW
Noon Dave Weld & the Imperial Flames
1:45 PM Mary Lane & the No Static Blues Band
3:45 PM Grady Champion
Mississippi Juke Joint
12:30 PM Grady Champion
2 PM Sam Lay
Sam Lay's credits as a drummer are diverse, to say the least. He was Howlin' Wolf's sticks man in the early to mid-60s, then joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a gig that led him to the sessions for Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. These days, though, he works mostly as a solo acoustic guitarist, playing amiable versions of well-known blues classics; that's what he'll be doing for this solo set. —DW
3:30 PM Stevie J & the Blues Eruption
5 PM Adib Sabir
6:30 PM Mississippi Jam
Route 66 Roadhouse
Noon Beginning Delta blues harmonica lesson with Joe Filisko
1:30 PM Discussing Wolf: 100 Years of Remembrances moderated by Larry Hoffman, with Bettye Kelly, Barbra Marks, Eddie Shaw, Dick Shurman, and Hubert Sumlin
4 PM Wildsang
5:30 PM East of Edens Soul Express
Petrillo Music Shell
5 PM Howlin' Wolf alumni featuring Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang with Jody Williams, Sam Lay, Henry Gray, Abb Locke, Corky Siegel, and special guest Hubert Sumlin
Chester Burnett—better known as Chicago blues immortal Howlin' Wolf—would be celebrating his 100th birthday this week, more than reason enough to call up a bunch of the musicians he used to run with for this all-star set. Guitarist Hubert Sumlin was Wolf's invaluable foil for decades, his elastic, darting leads nearly as essential to the big man's sound as his own feral howl and wheezing harp. Jody Williams spent some quality time in Wolf's outfit in the 50s; he's no less inventive a guitarist than Sumlin, as he proved with Bo Diddley back then and continues to do on his own today. Tenor saxist Eddie Shaw powered later incarnations of Burnett's combo with his lusty wails; he's fronted the Wolf Gang since his boss's death in 1976. Well before Shaw's tenure with Wolf, saxist Abb Locke blew up a storm in his band, and Henry Gray held down the piano stool for a dozen years. Harpist Corky Siegel is the odd man out here, though he has a firm grasp of the idiom. —BD
6:15 PM Otis Taylor Band
Otis Taylor emerged from the Denver folk scene in the 60s, and after stints with future James Gang and Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin and Bolin's erstwhile band Zephyr, he left music in the late 70s. When he returned in the mid-90s, he'd reverted to an acoustic style crafted to reflect the blues' African heritage—today many of his songs use modal harmony, and their swirling rhythms and circular, call-and-response structures hark back to the ring shout, a form of ritual dance brought to the U.S. and Caribbean by African slaves. By drawing on these traditions as well as the electrified, almost psychedelic sound he learned during his rock 'n' roll days, Taylor creates musical landscapes whose vividness matches that of his lyrics, which are among the most evocative in all of popular music. He can conjure up entire worlds, sometimes nightmarish but always uplifting—the classic paradox of the blues. —DW
7:20 PM James Cotton Blues Band with special guest Matt "Guitar" Murphy
Harmonica blaster James Cotton, a former Muddy Waters sideman, made some of the highest-energy blues of the 70s with his funky band, sparked by the sizzling licks of Matt "Guitar" Murphy, who'd previously done the same for pianist Memphis Slim—and who would go on to play with the Blues Brothers after leaving Cotton's group in the late 70s. This is a most welcome reunion for them: Murphy is on the comeback trail after a 2003 stroke, and though Cotton's voice long ago deserted him, he's still got his freight-train harp sound. —BD
8:25 PM Zora Young's tribute to Wolf and Sunnyland with special guest Hubert Sumlin
As one of precious few local blues chanteuses with the voice, strut, and charisma to be seriously considered a successor to Koko Taylor's throne, Zora Young can earn a main-stage slot without paying homage to Howlin' Wolf or Sunnyland Slim. But she's got her reasons: the late pianist was among her mentors, and Wolf's old guitarist Hubert Sumlin added high-octane release to her 2009 album Sunnyland (Airway), an impressive tribute that brought out the best in the veteran belter. —BD