Hail and Farewells: Chicago Blues Fest, Sunday June 8

The clouds cleared over the Chicago Blues Festival just in time for me to catch Tony Joe White, whose set like all those at the festival that day had been delayed by a sudden mid-afternoon cloudburst which included hail, another of the many delights we know as Spring in Chicago. Fortunately, my “L” ride downtown was well rewarded with reminders of the vibrancy and breadth of blues and its ability to renew itself over and over.

Tony Joe White’s music lives somewhere is the space between dirty dark electric folk and minimalist blues-rock, it’s hard to tell. The songs are arranged to be sparse but powerful, sort of Bluesdozer. I’m not too familiar with his work, but I’m going to get more acquainted with it. If I hadn’t been tipped off by the inclusion of “Poke Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia” in the set, I still would have figured out that he’s a great storyteller and songwriter, even playing requests from the crowd like “Even Trolls Love Rock N Roll“, sort of a “Devil Went Down to Georgia” without all the dick swinging.
Tony Joe White, Chicago Blues Festival 2008

Unfortunately, his set had to be brief due to the shortened schedules, and I made my way across the fest to catch short snippets of two promising acts who explore the many niches of the blues genre. Charles Wilson‘s 6-piece band had a fine horn section and good groove was already going when I arrived. Wilson’s been on the rise for several years now, and has the stage savvy and bandleader sense of his late uncle Little Milton, working the band hard but making sure that they all got credit and little cameos, including good-natured teasing, in between powerhouse soul and blues numbers that stayed thankfully far away from the so-called “Southern Soul” cliches, with vocal phrasing that recalls Bobby Bland, but in a higher register something like Jackie Wilson or Tyrone Davis. I raced over to the Louisiana stage with only enough time to catch the last song from John Boutte, a singer whom I’m also going to do some research on — his closing number had hints of tent-gospel, and he almost looked the part waving a tambourine over his head.

Charles Wilson, Chicago Blues Fest 2008 John Boutte, Chicago Blues Fest 2008

At the main-stage Petrillo Band Shell, an interesting experiment was slowly setting up on stage. Kingston Mines favorite Charlie Love‘s band was going to join guitar virtuoso Lurrie Bell and vocalist Karen Carroll on stage in a set that seemed almost operatic in tone. The first part of the set featured Bell, one of my favorite guitarists of all, ripping compact, crunchy solos in front of a full horn section, and I was reminded that there are a few third-generation Chicago bluesmen ready to move into the space left by departing giants (more on that later). Once Bell stepped back, Karen Carroll, a second-generation vocalist herself (her mother Jeanne Carroll was a storied jazz singer) sat down in front of this pickup “orchestra”, picked up an acoustic guitar, and starting belting out songs like a combination of Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie. It was a surprisingly good set, and made me re-think the opinion I’d formed of Love by watching sets at the touristy Mines. This was a far more musical and challenging set than what is usually heard at the north-side Blues Center, and was an impressively tight set that felt both well-rehearsed and well-improvised at the same time.

Lurrie Bell, Chicago Blues Fest 2008 Karen Carroll, Chicago Blues Festival 2008

Next up, another strong booking, Little Willie Littlefield, seemed like a more down-home version of Mose Allison, with sweeping almost-classical runs occasionally ringing out in the middle of boogie piano numbers. He’s a born ham, mugging and smiling behind a baby grand, managing to keep people watching a single man in the middle of a big stage — no an easy feat. He played for about 30 minutes, which was just about right for solo piano.
Little Willie Littlefield, Chicago Blues Fest 2008
The crowd was significantly higher, due mostly to the festival-closing act: B.B. King. This is only King’s second appearance at the Chicago Blues Fest in 20 years, and at 82, pretty much every performance is an event since every one could very well be his last. There have also been rumors that this might be the last festival for Blues Fest Director Barry Dolins, and the build-up had the feeling of a farewell party — blues dignitaries with special seats stage left to watch King (“the King and his Court”, get it?) include Buddy Guy, Lonnie and Ronnie Baker-Brooks, and Koko Taylor. After a nice warmup by the band, King was presented an award by Dolins and Guy, and for a brief moment, while the two marketable blues names outside the blues world were center stage, I had a spasm of regret, wondering who will replace them (and long-gone Muddy Waters) in the popular consciousness to represent blues.

I’m not going to review B.B. King. Like the Rolling Stones, there’s not much left to say except, he is. I can say that he still commands an audience, even from a chair, telling stories, alternately playing guitar and singing the blues (he famously told my good friend Jeff Johnson of the Chicago Sun-Times, when asked why he never sings and plays at the same time, “I’m still working on it”). At this age it seems his always-sardonic humor gets understood more by the audience, and it’s amazing how much of his mannerisms have become iconic for blues singers everywhere. Farewell, B.B., (and maybe Barry), glad you could throw a good farewell party on the lake for us all.
B.B. King, Chicago Blues Fest 2008

A Performance Clinic: Chicago Blues Fest June 6, 2008

Entering the Chicago Blues Festival on Friday from the north, I heard a tremendous growling and yowling coming from the Louisiana Bayou stage (click here to hear what I captured on my iPod as I walked up) that sounded like Hound Dog Taylor had crawled up from the grave and swallowed the Fabulous T-Birds whole, with a lean and hungry band that knew how to lay the foundation for a blind guitarist seated up front, who I later found was named Bryan Lee. Lee picked up where Johnny Winter had left off at the end of last night’s show, with a raucous set of controlled chaos that included some nifty slide work by a second guitarist, whose name I think I heard correctly over the rumble, is Wes Johnson. A terrific band, that set the tone for a night that was much less snoozy than the opening night.
Bryan Lee at Chicago Blues Fest
I wandered over to the Petrillo band shell, where the opening set was done revue-style with a variety of singers who emphasized the difference between musicianship and performance (drawing a strong contrast with last night). The set was backed by a terrific and generous band, the Willie Henderson Orchestra, who did a great job backing up several singers without stepping on the energetic performances as Johnny Winter’s band had done last night. Leading off was a performer I had never heard of, Theo Huff, who showed how to get attention blues-style in a pink silk suit, with a medley of Chicago-soul chestnuts that lasted only a few minutes but got the crowd up on their feet.
Theo Huff at Chicago Blues Festival

He was followed by diva Ruby Andrews, whom I’ve never seen in better form, working the audience and demonstraing the vocal range and power that has always served her well, and of course obliging the audience with a rousing rendition of her 60s mega-hit, “Casanova”. Ruby Andrews She was followed by local stalwart Cicero Blake, who showed that a cooler attack without theatrics can be just as entertaining, showing with a slow blues vocal how to capture and hold the audience’s attention.

The set-closer came from Sugar Pie DeSanto, with a clinic on how to work without the mike and engage the audience. Like Andrews, he 78-year-old songstress, bedecked from head to toe in a spangled outfit that could probably be seen on Google Earth, was a constant ball of motion, but also reminded me of her old runnin’ partner Etta James in that she belies the notion that an aging woman can’t exude sexual energy. She finished her set in the photo pit in front of the stage, resulting in a standing ovation.

Sugar Pie DeSanto

The next set featured Chicago veteran Eddy Clearwater, who has always put on a good show, but has had a career resurgence in recent years, perhaps in part because he closed the nightclub he was running in Chicago’s Wicker Park and focused again solely on touring and recording. Clearwater was in top form, and invited several other artists form the Alligator Records roster up on stage, but they really were an unnecessary embellishment to a scorching set, replete with his trademark, a full Native American headdress.

Koko Taylor at the Chicago Blues Fest
Koko Taylor closed the show with a strong set which was more of a slow burn than the openers, prowling the stage like a lioness, with a particularly strong version of Come to Mama, and some very strong guitar work by Shun Kikuta. Overall, this was a very strong night that clearly showed how veterans can put more show into a show, enhancing a musical performance with spectacle and energy, far superior to the opening night, which seemed somewhat lackluster by comparison.

Sound but no fury: Chicago Blues Fest, June 5th, 2008

So some geniuses at CDOT and the CTA decided to not only do construction on the Jackson Ave. bridge (normally the “gateway” to the festival) but also on the Red Line “L”, on one of the busiest festival days of the year, leaving me crankier than usual. I’ts hotter than a monkey’s balls today, and I know that doesn’t make any sense but it’s too hot for my brain to function properly. There is no Spring in Chicago any more, just winter, a few days of ping-pong temperatures, and then this muggy, clammy condition that passes for summer.

I arrived just in time to hear the last notes of “Mojo Workin’” float off the Front Porch stage, where Pinetop Perkins apparently had just finished a set with the last few guys in Chicago who can still play “classic” Chicago blues, including Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on harmonica and bassist Bob Stroger. Sorry I missed that, but I did make it in time for the free-grub-and-adult-beverages kickoff party which the Mayor’s Office of Special Events was so kind to invite me to.

While waiting in line at the courtesy tent, I caught the opening set by Big Time Sarah. She’s a fine club performer, but her bawdy routines and occasional confessional ballad don’t translate well to the big bandshell, and since she was also seated on a barstool for much of the set, there wasn’t much to watch even up close. A decent set that probably plays better at her weekly stand at Blue Chicago, which she plugged during the show.

The next set had promise, a tribute to one of the underappreciated giants of the blues, the seminal Louis Jordan, featuring guitarist Duke Robillard, a sensitive player who has added his talents to many worthy projects over the years, as well as fronting a horn-laden jump/swing band much influenced by Jordan. After Blues Fest director Barry Dolins read a city proclamation honoring Jordan’s contributions to both music and film (he starred in a number of film shorts in the 40s which were essentially the precursor of music video), Robillard launched a set which featured a hearty sampling of Jordan hits and “B” sides. While musically the arrangements were mostly picture-perfect tributes, what was missing was Jordan’s showmanship. When you have 6 guys on stage including a 3 piece horn section, if you don’t move around a bit, the tribute begins to look more like a statue and less like a performance. Sugar Ray Norcia joined intermittently on vocals for a number of songs, and since he wasn’t lugging an instrument I thought perhaps he might jump around a little, but alas, midway through the set I started taking photographs of some interesting cloud formations, which seemed to be moving more than the band:

Cranky old man yells at cloud

At some point this set ended, but I had stopped paying attention and was hoping that Johnny Winter could pull the night out of crankiness. As his band warmed up, I fell into despair — another blues-rock band without the blues, launching a cacophony of sound at the audience with so little subtlety that it actually made me yearn for Robillard to come back. There was about 20 minutes of instrumental work, including the set-opener from Winter (the Freddie King chestnut “Hideaway”), so the poor signer for the hearing impaired had nothing to do:

After a while Winter brought out the ailing harmoinica master James Cotton, reuiniting key members of Muddy Waters’ band from the “Blue Sky” era, and apparently, putting two aging guys sitting on chairs in front of an overamped rock band isn’t a good idea. I kept wishing the band would just sit down and let these guys play instead of stepping on them at every opportunity. While I agreed in theory with the idea of bringing back the headliners from the first Blues Fest for the 25th Anniversary, it would have been better to just let them play as a duo and forego the band. Cotton was not well served by this format at all, and I would say he was greatly disrespected by the band. After he departed, Winter ended the night on a nice note, with a rousing finish that included several encores and some of those greased lightning guitar licks that made him famous, reducing my crankiness quotient enough to look forward to coming back tomorrow night.

Overall, an evening that seemed out of its element for too much of the night, but maybe it was just me projecting onto the surrounding.

Jeff Healey dead at age 41

(B}BluesWire:-) Blind blues-rock guitarist Jeff Healey died Sunday March 2 in St. Joseph’s Hospital in his native Toronto, after a lifetime battle with the rare cancer, retino blastoma, that had blinded him as a child. While Healey was perhaps best known for the blues-rock guitar which he played unconventionally with the guitar laid across his lap, he also had released a number of fine jazz recordings, and played trumpet and clarinet as well as guitar. He appeared in the movie Roadhouse in 1989, and had been nominated for a Grammy award the previous year.  After several popular rock and blues-rock recordings on Arista, and worldwide touring with luminaries such as B.B. King, Healey, an avid collector of vintage records, turned to his first love, jazz, and made several releases on the Edmonton label Stony Plain records.  His first blues-rock record in 8 years, “Mess of Blues” was being prepared for release when he died.  The recording includes studio material recorded in Toronto as well as live tracks recorded with the band in Canada and England.  Healey was 41 years old, and is survived by his wife, Cristie, as well as two children.