Sweet Home Chicago

Sweet Home Chicago
The 2008 Chicago Blues Festival

By Karen Nugent
June 2008

Four days and nights of great blues.

Six stages with constant gigs featuring all kings of bands.

And free.

I thought I died and went to, well, you know…blues heaven, nirvana, Valhalla, Back to Godhead, land of 72 virgins…pick your cliché.

It was like being a kid in a candy store.

The Chicago Blues Festival, the world’s biggest and longest running, celebrated its 25th anniversary June 5-8 with the likes of Johnny Winter and James Cotton, Eddie Clearwater, Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, Louisiana Red, Buckwheat Zydeco, John Hammond, L’il Ed and the Blues Imperials, Magic Slim, and Muddy’s old band with Bob Margolin, Willie Smith, and Pinetop Perkins. There were more, but I can’t possibly remember them all.

This festival included a tribute to Muddy, who died 25 years ago, just before the first festival. There was a retrospective discussion of the legendary Mr. Morganfield, with Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records; Muddy’s wife, Marva Morganfield; Jim O’Neal, co-founder of Living Blues magazine; and Bill Gilmore, owner of several blues clubs.

Perkins, Muddy’s longtime piano player; along with Margolin, Bob Stroger, Smith, and his son, Kenny Smith, then performed a whopping set of Muddy, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, and other classic tunes.

But I found that the smaller side stages, where you could get right up close to the musicians, had the most interesting music.

For example, there was “Afrissippi” a band that blends African and world beat with blues. The band, composed of guitarist-singer Guelel Kumba, from Senegal, and three North Mississippians who worked under R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, was supposed to play at Johnny D’s last month, but the tour, which included shows in Canada, was cancelled due to passport problems.

At the festival, this group attracted the youngest audience members, something usually lacking at blues shows. There were college-types really grooving on the African rhythms, even though most of the lyrics were in Fulani, an African tribal dialect, and French. I’d say there were more African sounds than blues, but the blues they did were powerful. I suspect the future of blues lies with this type of fusion.

The “Rising Star Fife and Drum Band,” AKA the Thomas family, was equally fascinating. It’s safe to say these young folks from Mississippi were NOT playing no “Yankee Doodle” like on Patriot’s Day at Lexington Green. Consisting of two bass drummers, two snare drummers, and a female fife player, the band marched through a wowed audience, playing their way to the stage. The music, a kind of precursor to the blues we know, is strangely infectious. Unfortunately, a huge thunderstorm interrupted the show about halfway through, although they for sure could have gone on without a microphone. (The tent poles were another thing…hazardous around big lightning strikes.) Happily, most of the band was back later that day, jamming with Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm in a super set.

This particular side stage, appropriately named “Mississippi Juke Joint,” had the best acts, and I had to tear myself away from it several times. Besides the bands I already mentioned, it had T-Model Ford, Sam Lay, the Jimmy Burns Blues Band, and an absolutely fantastic set by the Chicago Blues Round Robin (Burns, Willie Smith, E.G. McDaniels, John Primer, Carl Weathersby, Kenny Smith, Steve Doyle, and Dave Katzman, who is the sound man at Buddy Guy’s Legends club.) They play a style in which songs are composed on the spot, and worked out together. It was outstanding. The weather intervened in that, as well, with the Windy City producing a gust that blew the backdrop onto the band, making Willie Smith’s Big Eyes even bigger.

There was another forum, in a venue called the “Route 66 Roadhouse” on the future of the blues. Can you say depressing? O’Neal, the club owner, more or less said the music and its fans are at a low point, and will probably just fade away. He said he has trouble getting his clubs (including one in nearby Evanston, Illinois, home of Northwestern University, and two in New York City) half-filled even when a big name act is billed. He said the last good phase was in the 1970s, when clubs situated near a few Ivy League colleges, including Harvard, attracted hip college kids who popularized blues. He doesn’t see that at all with today’s youth. The others on the panel pointed out that O’Neal, and Iglauer are in their 50s and 60s, as are most fans – not to mention the even older musicians – and there are no young people coming up to replace them.

At one point, somebody on the panel suggested that playing blues is easy and consists of five chords and six notes. That prompted a miffed Eddie Shaw (one of Howlin’ Wolf’s sidemen who now has his own great band, the Wolf Gang) to take the microphone and defend his colleagues. And that was followed by a very angry Jimmy McKracklin, well-known in his own right, to launch into a tirade about how back in the day, no record company would sign him on, because he was not black enough. He also said certain clubs refused to hire him for unclear reasons. (There had been earlier intense discussion about white guys playing blues, British bands taking the spotlight away from the original bluesmen, younger guys capitalizing on the classic songs and not writing their own, new bands who record CDs having to compete with the classic recordings, white guys who play blues getting dissed, and so on.) It was a thought-provoking session for sure.

Each night ended with the headliners at the largest stage. B.B. King played on the final night, but I missed him because there was so much jamming action going on at Buddy Guy’s Legends club, which is within walking distance of the festival. A lot of the musicians showed up there after hours.

What a terrific place. I was there three days, including as soon as we arrived. And who was sitting at the bar having a bowl of gumbo? None other than Lonnie Brooks himself. He later jammed. There was an ongoing parade of good bands and jam sessions at Legends, day and night. Plus good food and drinks. I didn’t see Buddy, but heard he was there all the time.

Here are some more notes on the festival:

For a complete schedule of the festival, visit www.chicagobluesfestival.com and book your trip for next year!

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