It was graduation season and I was visiting Chicago for family festivities. I got a pleasant surprise after booking my flight. The Chicago Blues Festival would be happening while I was there! It really would be back to the roots.
Since 1984 the Chicago Blues Festival has been drawing large crowds to the Lakefront. For years I had been monitoring the action from online and telling myself that some year I would go. The Chicago Blues Festival is still a free event.
It was a hot day. Sunny and in the nineties. I took the train downtown. It blasted through the northern suburbs and the Northwest side of Chicago. The route from the Edison Park station had once been my commute. Some of the passengers were in Cubs gear and headed to Wrigley Field.
The tracks enter downtown and end at a platform in the new Ogilvie Transportation Center. Union Station was across the street. A few people from the train were headed to the Festival and walked up Randolph towards the lake.
Downtown was relatively quiet on Sunday. There wasn’t that frantic weekday buzz. A few blocks from Michigan Avenue I could hear electric Blues echoing in the canyons of steel and glass. A large mural honoring Muddy Waters on State Street had been dedicated on Thursday, and the Mud Morganfield Band, with Muddy’s oldest son, had played at the ceremony.
Blues is revered as a part of Chicago music history now. It’s amusing to see the civic recognition. The city fathers were not big fans fifty years ago. The Blues is now appreciated as a Chicago art form, and Blues bars are a big tourist attraction.
The music got louder. It was like a magnet. I crossed Michigan Avenue and went under a large banner: Blues Village. The site of the Festival had been shifted a bit north to Millennium Park. It was still near the lakefront. The Festival had centered on the Petrillo Music Shell near the Art Institute. Now the main stage would be the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
Even a partial list of the Blues greats that have performed at the Festival is challenging. Here are some names I cherry picked from the Wikipedia entry. There are many more:
Albert King, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bobby Rush, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry (with a cameo by Keith Richards!) Etta James, Homesick James, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Jimmy Johnson, Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, Johnnie Taylor, Johnny Winter, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, Magic Slim, Matt Murphy, Mick Taylor, The Neville Brothers, Otis Rush, Pinetop Perkins, Ray Charles, Sam Lay, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sugar Blue, Sunnyland Slim, Willie Dixon, and many more.
Muddy Waters passed away a year before the first Blues Festival. Howling Wolf had been gone for seven years by then.
I remember freaking out when I heard about Keith Richards’ surprise appearance with Chuck Berry in 1986. A large exhibition of Rolling Stones memorabilia was being shown at Chicago’s Navy Pier. “Exhibitionism” was approved by the Stones and they provided many relics, including clothes and the equipment they used in their very early years. It certainly wasn’t as exciting as seeing a live show, but it was a fun exhibition, and there is more than a nod to the Stones’ debt to the great Bluesmen.
It was still early. 12:30. There are five stages. My first stop was at one of the larger stages, the Budweiser Crossroads Stage on the “South Promenade.” Beer sponsors are important. It was the loss of beer sponsorship that was the last straw for the San Francisco Blues Festival. Another sponsor is WDCB, “Chicago’s Home for Jazz!” The station provided the invaluable programs that were being handed out by volunteers.
A square of Blues related booths led to a stage area where chairs were set up. It’s a laid back scene. Blues Festival veterans have set up under the trees. They have lawn chairs and coolers. They’ll accept a partial view of the stage to be in the shade.
I had just missed the raucous antics of Tail Dragger, but I got there in time for: “The Blues Disciples with special guest Ms. Erica Johnson & Milwaukee Slim.” They were rocking out as I walked up. They dedicate the second song to Lou Pride: “I’d Rather Go Blind.” “Something told me it was over ...”
The band brings it down while we get a show business style introduction to Milwaukee Slim. He launches into “Big Boss Man.” “You’re just tall, that’s all.” Milwaukee Slim is pretty tall himself. I wonder if he’s any relation to Fillmore Slim. They play a real Chicago Blues classic, Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
The Mississippi Juke Joint Stage is inside a very large white canvas tent. It looks like it could hold a thousand people. Inside the entrance is a large booth handing out information: “Visit Mississippi!” The tent is great protection from the sun and there are plenty of chairs set up.
J.J. Thames is doing another version of “I’d Rather Go Blind.” She’s the “Mississippi Blues Diva.” J.J. Thames sounds great, but I want to see what the rest of the festival looks like. After a couple of songs I go to the nearby Front Porch Stage. It’s on the rooftop of the Harris Theater.
It’s a smaller stage. The Mud Morganfield Band is playing some rocking Chicago Blues. Larry “Mud” Morganfield is the oldest son of Muddy Waters. A small crowd stands in the heat and enjoys their authentic Chicago Blues sound. The band members look old. It must be unusual for them to be playing outdoors in the sunlight.
The nearby Blues Village is a square of grass that is ringed with Blues related booths. There is the Blues Kids Foundation, the Windy City Blues Society, Koko Taylor’s Celebrity Aid Foundation and The Eddie Taylor Blues Foundation. The home office of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation is at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, the former site of the Chess recording studios. There is the Southwest Airlines Blues Lounge. It’s a small area with seats for interviews and panel discussions.
I still miss the San Francisco Blues Festival. It’s been gone for almost ten years now. The San Francisco Blues Festival was a chance to get together with like minded individuals and enjoy a great lineup of Blues bands. We would meet at “the little tree” in the back of Fort Mason’s Great Meadow. Over the years we saw many of the same Blues greats that are listed above. After thirty-seven years creator and producer Tom Mazzolini had to end it. I can’t say I went to every one, but I went to most of them. It was always one of the best music events of the year. You’ve got to hand it to Chicago. Not only do they have a free Blues Festival, but they still have a Lollapalooza there!
Back at the Blues Village, it’s a laid back scene. It was still early on a Sunday. It would get more crowded as the day went on. I’ll assume it was a little rowdier on Saturday night.
People who attended the Chicago Blues Festival in its early years told me that the first Festivals were looser. There was no limit to the alcohol people could bring with them. Groups rolled in kegs, and there were crowd problems. A more family atmosphere was encouraged. Chicago police were keeping an eye out today. It looked like a reasonable amount of booze was winked at. There were plenty of vendors selling beer and wine at the Festival.
Zakiya Hooker would play at the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage. She’s the daughter of John Lee Hooker. I wanted to see at least part of her act, but there’s some kind of glitch with the sound. I wait for a while, but there’s too much going on at the other stages to have much patience. I bail.
It was time for a real break. I was a little surprised to get a booth at the Park Grill. After a Thai Crab Sandwich I was ready for the summer heat again. I consulted the handy program. My plan was to see Rick Estrin & The Nightcats at the Budweiser Crossroads Stage. I had seen them many times in North Beach and expected some great rocking keyboards.
They open with “What I’m Talking About.” Rick Estrin looks like the ultimate hep cat. He has an almost Beatnik, prototype hipster look. They do the song about buying a suit, “Wrap It Up.” “Easy Come, Easy Go.” The band is hot and tight, but maybe I should be looking for and listening to some more Chicago style Blues.
There was a Blues scene in San Francisco. Much of it centered on Grant Street in North Beach. It was convenient for me. Some great bands played at The Saloon and The Grant and Green, but Chicago Blues always had the harder edge that I craved.
I saw many of the great Bluesmen before I left Chicago in 1976. You could do the inevitable math. It was obvious that they weren’t going to be around long. They seemed ancient to me even in the Seventies. I was chasing legends. I knew that someday I would brag about seeing them.
Muddy Waters saw the resurgence of interest in the Blues from young white Rock fans searching for the roots of the British invasion. He talked other Blues bands into playing at clubs like Alice’s Revisited, Kingston Mines and The Quiet Knight. It was a little safer to see live Blues.
So I got to see Muddy Waters. Howling Wolf. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Otis Rush. Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins. B.B. King played in the gym of Loyola University. I’ll always remember he stayed around long after the show shaking hands and talking about the Blues. The Siegel- Schwall Blues Band played great live shows.
One of my favorites was Hound Dog Taylor. He played at a bar near the Loyola el tracks, I think it was called Gulliver’s. The place stayed open until 5 a.m. Let’s just say it had a lax ambiance. Hound Dog would grind out Blues for hours on his slide guitar.
It’s back to the shade and relative comfort of the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage. The band plays an instrumental while everyone gets ready for Denise LaSalle, a matriarch of the Blues. She uses a walker and sits in front of the band. There’s no doubt about who’s in charge during “I’m the Queen.” We’re in the presence of Blues royalty.
People are dancing in the seats near the stage. There’s still more room in the back for people to chill out, relax and watch the show. It’s easy to walk up and get a closer look from the side of the stage. She sings a charged “Remember About You.”
I walk to the back of the huge tent. The crowd is into it. There is more dancing at the seats and in the aisles. After “Down Home Blues” the crowd gives her a big ovation.
One guy’s tee shirt catches my eye. “Disco Demolition Army.” It was an artifact from a pivotal event in Western Civilization, the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Park in 1979. There can’t be too many of these shirts left around. The shirt looked torn and ragged.
The guy wearing the shirt looked torn and ragged. He was probably about my age. He had that look. This guy had been around. There were plenty of miles on him. He had a mustache and small beard on his wrinkled, pock marked face. He wore glasses, but you wouldn’t mistake this guy for a four eyed nerd. I didn’t notice at first, but he is an amputee. He was applauding by banging the stump of his arm against his remaining hand. Nothing was going to stop him from showing his appreciation for the Queen of the Blues. There can’t be too many guys like this still around.
I went for a stroll on the promenade. There was a row of booths for sponsors. One of them was for the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Bureau. I thought it was odd to see a rival for the tourist dollar here, even if they paid to be a sponsor.
One of the first booths was the Rosa’s Lounge booth. A band had set up in front and they were doing some impromptu jamming. There was no stage. The band just started blasting at eye level. They were loud and they were rocking. A crowd gathered. These guys were stealing the show. I should have found who they were, but conversation wasn’t convenient. The song became recognizable. “The Same Thing.” I did a time check. 4:40. Time flies when you’re having fun.
The Festival isn’t far from the Crown Fountain. When we were kids many Chicago parks had a “sprinkler.” Water was constantly shooting out of a large pipe coming out of the ground. The water would spray out of the top and cover a small concrete area. It wasn’t a swimming pool, but the water gave us a welcome break from the heat. Like other simple things it provided us with hours of imaginative diversion. Parents got a break too. The big question was: “Can I go in the sprinkler?” The answer was usually yes.
The Crown Fountain is the modern version of our “sprinkler.” People are drawn to it to get out of the heat. The fountain has two towers. Human faces are projected on the towers by embedded LED lights. It’s an unlikely combination of water and electricity. A timed release of water sprays out of the mouths of the projected faces. Kids run in the water and the Chicago wind spreads the spray. It’s a very popular spot today.
The Cloud Gate is a large modern, metallic sculpture. I think its popularity was surprising. It is a huge piece of stainless steel that wraps around itself. Chicagoans quickly named it: “The Bean.” The surface is shiny and it creates some slightly distorted reflections with a Fun House carnival effect. People are constantly walking around and through it while taking pictures. There’s a unique view of the stages and booths of the Blues Festival reflected on the surface of “The Bean.”
Back at the Mississippi Juke Joint tent, The Queen of the Blues was still onstage. She was lecturing the crowd about vaginal orgasms. There is the snap. There is the crackle. There is the pop. She prefers a man who can make all three possible. She’s very close to losing her G rating here. LaSalle goes right up to that line, but people were more amused than uncomfortable. The biology lesson leads into “Don’t Mess With My Toot.
I walked around the back of the Front Porch Stage. Mud Morganfield was trudging towards me. Maybe it was the heat, but he looked stressed out. He carried his guitar case. I decided to at least say hi. I hesitated. He did look stressed out. “Nice show.” He said thanks and marched on. Was he trying to figure out where the next gig was?
Another stop at the Budweiser Crossroads Stage for Melvia “Chick” Rogers. She sings “I’m a Woman” the female version of the Willie Dixon classic. “I’d make love to a crocodile!” Rogers fronts a big band of Rhythm and Blues veterans, complete with horns. The last song is “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” Things are winding down. At the end of her set the announcer says, “See you in 2018!” It may be over at this stage, but the action at the Pritzker stage has hardly begun.
The Festival has a solid lineup, but it doesn’t have any huge Pop music names. I’m used to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass where there’s at least a couple of very popular crossover acts like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton or Kris Kristofferson. Last year Cindy Lauper played there. Believe me, I’m not complaining about Chicago’s lineup. I’ve learned to avoid the “big” acts in a festival setting.
Things don’t even get started at the Pritzker stage until 5 p.m. People have gathered in the seating area, but it’s still easy to get around on the back of the lawn. Ronnie Baker Brooks and his band play “Times Have Changed.”
There’s too much steel and glass here for me. Speakers hang from a latticework of large pipes that hang overhead.
Brooks and the band do a great version of “Sweet Home Chicago.” Many in the crowd get up and dance to the Chicago anthem.
Every once in a while a young musician is proclaimed the savior of the Blues. Gary Clark Jr. is the latest to be given the honor and duty. I had seen Gary Clark Jr. recently in San Francisco, so I decided to start the trek back to the suburbs. If you get a chance, check him out!
Are the Blues dead? It has fallen out of favor before. It sure seemed to be thriving this weekend in Chicago. The many fans enjoying the acts here show that the Blues is still alive and kicking in Chicago.