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.