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BLUES ON THE FOX FESTIVAL 2009
June 19- 20
Featuring: Los Lobos, Sugar Blue, Watermelon Slim & the Workers, Henry Butler, Two-Man Wrecking Crew, Hix Brothers’ Junior All-Stars
Photos & Story by Eric Steiner
Sadly, a terrific storm shut down Friday’s show for the 2009 Blues on the Fox Festival. Happily, Saturday’s line-up on June 20th enjoyed a cloudless, hot, welcome-to-summer day on the Fox River. I missed this year’s Chicago Blues Fest the week before due to my daughter’s high school graduation, and I plan to return next year to the festivities in Grant Park. The Chicago Blues Guide’s coverage and pics will tide me over until then. Meanwhile Aurora’s festival provided me with a great summertime blues fix in Chicagoland!
Getting from O’Hare to Aurora was a challenge that Friday as felled trees pulled down power lines across Galena Avenue less than a half-hour from the fest. Big James and the Chicago Playboys along with Davey Knowles and Backdoor Slam’s sets were cancelled by the time I got there, due to the storm. Fortunately, there was some indoor blues going on nearby.
Aurora is home to the Leland Hotel, once the tallest building in Illinois outside of Chicago when it was built in 1928. This 22-story skyscraper, now an apartment building, was also home to a studio that captured some of the early blues greats for RCA and Bluebird. Henry Townsend, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson (the first), Tampa Red, Yank Rachell, and many others recorded there. Sonny Boy recorded 44 of his 120 RCA and Bluebird sides at the Leland, and Tampa Red laid down 230 sides for Bluebird, too. I’m pleased that Aurora’s city leaders recently renamed Stolp Avenue “Blues Alley” in honor of the Leland’s legacy, and that Earwig’s Michael Robert Frank brought “Honeyboy” Edwards back to the hotel in 1997 to record The World Don’t Owe Me Nothin.’
Well, I’ve heard that some say the building’s haunted. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Aurora’s own Bobby G Blues Band and their CD release party in the Dirty Duck on the first floor was a great kick-off to a splendid blues weekend. Bobby G’s band put on a solid blues show that highlighted his new, self-produced CD, Bitter Cup. The disc offers nine new original songs, and my favorites include “Went Out Last Night,” and “Ain’t My Fault.” Bobby G did these, and more, during the SRO party, including an inspired cover of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” I especially liked Bobby’s big sound with two keyboards and the handsome, triple threat known as Tony Medina, for his work on harp, vocals and congas.
Saturday’s fest kicked off with the Hix Brothers’ Junior All-Stars, and these young musicians can play everything from a traditional, electric interpretation of “Crossroads,” to a Peter Frampton hit that featured a mouth-box and Steely Dan’s jazzy and complicated “Bodhisattva.” Not only did these young Aurorans represent the original music note-for-note, but they also added some flourishes of their own. Hix Brothers Music is celebrating 10 years in Aurora, and I hope that brothers Andrew, Peter, and Carl continue this tradition at other local music festivals.
The Two-Man Wrecking Crew held court next, and I’ve seen Cedric Burnside and Lightning Malcolm in their native Mississippi (as “Juke Joint Duo” at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale years ago) and in Memphis at the Blues Music Awards. The guys have been nominated for a 2009 Illinois Blues Blast nomination for Best New Artist Debut for their Two Man Wrecking Crew CD on Delta Groove, and Blues Foundation voters gave the duo the nod for a Blues Music Award (formerly the WC Handy Awards) for this debut this past May. Their impassioned and rough-hewn Hill Country Blues styles continue to captivate me, and I’m pleased that they are honoring R. L. Burnside with their music. As R.L. would say, “well, well, well…” Lightning Malcolm stretches to play both bass and lead guitar parts, while Cedric is a strong and focused presence on vocals and drums.
Sugar Blue’s set featured a mixture of classic, old school blues and up-tempo, “how many notes can we fit into a measure” blues. Each style brought the Galena Avenue crowd out of their lawn chairs to boogie, and I particularly appreciated the way Sugar Blue and his super tight band honored the memory of Koko Taylor with some traditional Chicago blues covers. The band started with a rousing "Don't You Lie to Me" and followed with masterful interpretations of "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Messin' with the Kid" that displayed guitarist Rico McFarland's outstanding guitar chops. The virtuoso harp player hung out at the Big City Rhythm and Blues Magazine booth, and graciously met fans and signed autographs just moments before his set.
Watermelon Slim and the Workers
have exploded onto the world’s blues scene with critically-acclaimed CDs on the
Northern Blues label, and their set sampled songs from last year’s
No Paid Holidays,
The Wheel Man (2007) and his
eponymous Northern Blues debut from 2006.
At the 2007 Blues Music Awards, Watermelon Slim garnered nominations for
Artist, Entertainer, Album, Band, Song, and Traditional Album of the Year, and
this rarified air has only been shared by Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and Robert Cray.
In fact, these more established blues performers have only received six
nominations. Watermelon Slim set
the stage for Blues on the Fox: whether he was playing his dobro flat on his
guitar case, testifying behind the mic, or wailing on his harp, his performance
showed why he’s been in-demand since taking the blues world by storm (some would
say ‘barnstorm’ in his Oklahoma home territory) over the past few years.
His show was well worth the trip to Aurora. If you missed this stellar
set, check him out online. Slim's song "Black Water" is available as a free
download at www.watermelonslim.com.
His show was well worth the trip to Aurora. If you missed this stellar set, check him out online. Slim's song "Black Water" is available as a free download at www.watermelonslim.com.
When I first read that Los Lobos was headlining the 2009 Blues on the Fox, I scratched my head. While they have played some great blues, I don’t consider them a blues band. As I learned about the changing demographics of Aurora and the Western ‘burbs, I finally felt that this was surely a masterstroke on the part of festival organizers. Aurora’s New York Avenue (or should I say Avenida Nueva York?) features many Latino-friendly businesses, and they have revitalized this downtown business district. I enjoyed Los Lobos’ diverse set of music, which befitted a city with a vibrant Latino community, who came out in force to see them. The band reached back into its past catalogue to perform many upbeat, danceable hits including “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Evangeline,” “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” “That Train Don’t Stop Here,” “I Got Loaded,” “Whiskey Trail,” and the muy caliente “Mas y Mas.” Los Lobos covered Richie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go” and performed spicy cumbia, conjunto and tejano tunes. But the real show stopper was when the talented Hix Brothers joined Lobos for some dynamic blues-rock jamming on “Crossroads” and “Red House.” The audience continually cheered on the young players and Los Lobos’ members seemed to be delighted, too, at the prowess of these prodigies.
For me, blues festivals are like family reunions, however dysfunctional families can be. At Blues on the Fox, I had the opportunity to reconnect with blues people that I’ve met at the Chicago Blues Festival, the Blues Music Awards, and the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge – plus keep online relationships alive with fans I’ve met through the Chicago Blues Guide and the Blindman Blues Forum. It was great to hang out with “Blues Princess” Amy Brat, Deb Seitz, Bruce Iglauer, Kurt Swanson, Dick Shurman, Blues Blast’s Bob Kieser and Mad Dog Dave (from the new Windy City Blues Society). Of course CBG’s Linda Cain, Jennifer Wheeler and Hambone were there having a blast, too.
I’ve enjoyed the friendships I’ve developed along the blues highway, and I learn more from each festival I attend. Blues on the Fox is no different: it’s a gathering of the blues tribe the weekend after the Chicago Blues Festival. While Blues on the Fox may be outgrowing its Stolp Island confines, I hope that Aurora will bring this community-spirited festival back to more spacious grounds next year.
Blues on the Fox is the first of four events in the 2009 Downtown Alive! Festival sponsored by the City of Aurora, Star 96.7, the Ballydoyle Pub, Comcast, and Miller Lite. Aurora is well worth a long weekend: I learned a great deal at the David Pierce History Center, three floors of local history and art.
Who knew that silent film star Tom Mix hailed from Aurora, or that the city boasted such strong connections to music, publishing, and children’s television? Seeing the Garfield Goose puppet in the “50 Aurorans Who Made a Difference” exhibit recalled childhood memories in Chicago Heights and Park Forest of watching TV’s Frazier Thomas. I passed on making my very own Garfield Goose puppet, ‘cause the Hix Brothers’ Junior All-Stars were about to take the stage…
Downtown Aurora Alive!
Stolp Island National Historic Register District
New Aurora Walking Tours via Podcast