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.