Words: Robin Zimmerman | Photos: Howard Greenblatt
From living legends and dynamic dynasties to well-known national artists, the 35th Annual Chicago Blues Festival was jam-packed with talented acts.
For the second straight year, Millennium Park was “Ground Zero” for the Windy City’s big blues blowout.
While Chicago’s spectacular skyline served as an impressive backdrop, music and kinship were front and center during the festival’s three-day run.
On Friday, the festival paid homage to Delmark Records. Founded in 1953, Delmark has long been a key player on the Chicago blues scene. A long list of Delmark artists were on the bill throughout the day.
With an inspired performance on the Budweiser Stage, Sharon Lewis’ put an exclamation point on her impressive 25-year musical career. Her most recent Delmark release “Grown Ass Woman” has been garnering rave reviews.
“Rockwell Avenue” might strike a chord with many blues fans as it’s the address of Delmark Studios and the name of a relatively new band of veteran musicians. This 5-piece outfit put on a spirited show in support of their first Delmark release, Back to Chicago.
Purists packed the Front Porch Stage for an afternoon set with Lurrie Bell, Eddie Taylor Jr., and the Bell Dynasty. These scions of famous bluesmen did their dads proud with an impassioned performance.
Grammy-nominated guitarist, Lurrie Bell, along with his harp-playing brother, Steve, wowed the Front Porch crowd with their musical interplay. They later played together on the main stage.
While much has been made of those old lowdown blues, there are joyful moments. Here, Delmark artist Guy King was joined by his wife, singer Sarah Fringero and their baby daughter for a sweet serenade.
When the sun set behind Chicago’s skyscrapers, the action moved over to the Pritzker Pavilion. For the Friday night finale, a slew of fine musicians joined forces in a tribute to Delmark founder, Bob Koester.
They also honored the artists who came before them. Tomiko Dixon, the “Granddaughter of the Blues” teamed up with Demetria Taylor to play a few of Big Time Sarah’s tunes.
Although the blues are an American art form, its appeal stretches well beyond U.S borders. Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure exemplifies the broad reach of the blues.
Anne Harris joined Vieux onstage with her violin providing an ethereal counterpart to the hot guitar licks from the “Hendrix of the Sahara.”
Slide guitarist virtuoso, Sonny Landreth, followed Vieux on the Budweiser stage. Eric Clapton has said that Landreth is “one of the most advanced artists in the world and one of the most under-appreciated.”
While Landreth is already on a superstar’s radar, the Festival also featured up-and-coming artists like Selwyn Birchwood.
In a shift from previous years, the Front Porch Stage stayed open late. Matthew Skoller’s band, Chicago Wind, blew the crowd away with a set that included everything from smooth ballads to sharp takes on modern day life.
Vocalist Deitra Farr is always a crowd favorite and her appearance with Chicago Wind was no exception. She played a wide range of popular numbers including her classic hit “How Much Longer?”
It was a “who’s who” of harmonica players for Saturday’s main event at the Pritzker Pavilion. Everyone from Billy Branch and Corky Siegel to Sugar Blue, Rick Estrin and Magic Dick were on hand to play tribute to the late Little Walter.
The powerhouse harp players were joined by Grammy-winning guitarist, Billy Flynn and the great Sam Lay.
Besides playing drums behind Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton, Lay also provided just the right rhythm for everyone from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Siegel Schwall and Bob Dylan.
With his unique brand of Delta-infused blues, Mississippi Gabe Carter didn’t miss a beat during an uplifting performance that had the crowd on their feet. Carter was joined by the always masterful harp-player, Jeff Stone.
Carter trotted his twin daughters onstage for the bluesiest version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” the crowd ever heard!
Fantastic Negrito brought his “blues with a punk attitude” to the big stage for Sunday Night’s finale.
Mavis Staples’ streak of stellar shows continued unabated on Sunday night. This legendary 78-year old performer received lots of love from local Chicagoans and the many international attendees alike.
Staples has been a major influence on many musicians and her songs have played a key role in many pivotal points in American history.
This recap represents just a smattering of the many talented acts that took the stage right in our own backyard.
While several so-called “blues festivals” have stacked the deck with a slew of not-so-bluesy acts, the Chicago Blues Festival should be commended for featuring real-deal blues musicians and heartfelt tributes to many of the genre’s trailblazers.