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.
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.
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.
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.
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.