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LIVE REVIEW-- Chicago Blues Festival 2010

Chicago Blues Festival 2010 Review

June 11-13

Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf’s 100 birthday

Chicago, IL

Hubert Sumlin
Hubert Sumlin

By Linda Cain

Photos: Jennifer Wheeler (except where noted)

To see more photos, click on above photo of Hubert Sumlin

Where is that time machine when you need one?  This year’s three day Chicago Blues Fest had so many must-see acts, some of them simultaneously on different stages, that it was impossible to catch them all. But Chicago Blues Guide did manage to take in some outstanding music. Here are just some of the highlights of this year’s big blues event in Grant Park, which was dedicated to Howlin’ Wolf, who would have been 100 years old in 2010. (It looks like Pinetop Perkins at age 97 and Honeyboy Edwards at 95 are fast approaching that centennial mark themselves!). While Wolf tributes were the official theme, the secondary flavor of the fest proved to be the blues reunion.

The first day of the fest coincided with the massive Blackhawks celebration for winning the Stanley cup, so downtown Chicago was packed with hockey and blues fans alike, all in a festive mood.

Blues fans who entered the festival grounds at the Monroe Street entrance (just north of the Art Institute) were greeted by the sounds of the exciting new Windy City Blues Society Street Stage, which hosted a bevy of bodacious blues bands each day from noon to 7:15 p.m. Our blues hats are off to the WCBS volunteers who put together this stunning roster, manned the information booth and sold CDs.

Friday, June 11

The Kilborn Alley Blues Band, from Champaign Urbana, IL, was the first act we caught on Friday on the WCBS stage and they drew quite a crowd as the quintet mined the rich material from its sophomore CD, Better Off Now, on the local Blue Bella label. Featuring the deep, gritty, soulful vocals of Andrew Duncanson on catchy original songs, plus help from guest harp player Deak Harp with his dynamic blowing, the band really got a groove going from the first note. Don’t be surprised if this young band makes it to one of Blues Fest’s bigger stages in the future; they’re that good. 

Over on the Front Porch stage, elder statesman Jimmy Dawkins held court with his classic West Side guitar stylings, with help from one-time apprentice Billy Flynn on second guitar. (Flynn has since gone on to earn two Grammy nominations for his work on the Cadillac Records soundtrack and on the acclaimed CD Chicago Blues: A Living History). The sound of a voice with a hell-hound-on-his-trail filled the air and blues fans knew that Tail Dragger was in the house.  The photo pit filled up instantly and fans rushed to the front of the stage in order to glimpse the infamous West Side singer who earned his moniker from mentor Chester Burnett, The Wolf. With a gravelly, whiskey-soaked voice and an animated stage presence, Tail Dragger mesmerized the crowd with his amusing and often woeful songs such as “My Head Is Bald,” “Tend to Your Business,” “Treat Her Right”  and Wolf numbers like “Louise.”

Normally when appearing in a blues bar, Tail Dragger does not stand on the stage by the band. He prowls the audience to find lovely ladies to regale with his dramatic narratives. On the Front Porch venue, the singer stood at the edge of the stage and leaned forward, projecting as much of his impossibly skinny body as possible towards the crowd. You know he was dying to get close to those women!

Cafe R&B

Speaking of lovely ladies, Café R&B took the Front Porch platform by storm with front woman Roach commanding attention. Looking like a young Tina Turner in her long, blonde wig, yellow high heels and tight black dress, the singer strutted, wiggled and slinked across the stage and sang her curvaceous butt off as she and the ultra-hip five- piece band updated classic blues songs like Junior Wells’ “Snatch It Back And Hold It” and Wolf’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Roach injected each number with soul and sexiness. Café R&B proved to be another band destined for the Petrillo Main Stage. Don’t miss this exciting band the next time they come to your town.

Eddie Shaw
Eddie Shaw


Jody WilliamsOn the big stage Friday night, it was a Wolf pack reunion that was packed with the legend’s former sidemen, plus special guests. Sax player Eddie Shaw acted as frontman for the tribute as his powerful, inspired vocals and mighty horn led the band which consisted of fellow Wolf alumnae:  Abb Locke on sax, pianist Henry Gray, legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin, fellow guitarists Jody Williams(photo) and Sam Lay.

 Also on the bandstand were Corky Siegel on harmonica, Shaw’s son Vaan on triple-necked guitar and drummer Tim Taylor who all contributed to Wolf classics like “Sittin’ On Top of the World” and “Ain’t Superstitious.”  The Wolf Gang seemed to be having a howlin’ good time playing together and remembering their fellow mentor in the blues.

Otis Taylor & Anne Harris
Otis Taylor & Anne Harris

Otis Taylor may not have had a Howlin’ Wolf connection, but he surely conjured the same type of spooky blues spirits that got Chester Burnett howlin’ at the crossroads. Taylor, a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Colorado, refers to himself as a blues artist, rather than a blues musician, with an emphasis on the word art. Taylor boldly goes where no blues musician has ventured heretofore, experimenting with all manner of instruments, sounds and styles; yet his deep, soulful vocals and social/political lyrics remain rooted in the gritty blues.  Joined by guest members Anne Harris on violin (from Elmhurst, IL) and Chuck Campbell on pedal steel (from the noted sacred steel ensemble The Campbell Brothers), Taylor led his quintet through hypnotic trance blues, psychedelic blues-rock featuring his banjo jamming with pedal steel and fiddle, a brief bluegrass hoedown that had the crowd stompin’, a blues harp version of Bo Diddley’s “Hambone” that  got the fans singing and a lengthy tribute to Jimi Hendrix with a wild version of “Hey Joe.”

James Cotton & Matt Murphy
James Cotton & Matt Murphy

Next up on the Petrillo was another blues reunion with Wolf alums James “Super Harp” Cotton and  Matt “Guitar” Murphy. Although both men have suffered major health problems in the past, both were back in virtuoso form that night, storming through lively numbers like “Rocket 88,” danceable jump blues, Chicago blues and some Wolf songs.  Joining them was Darrell Nulisch, a Texas born, soul-blues singer and harp player who opened the show and served as bandleader and cheerleader.

The final set of the night was a tribute to both Sunnyland Slim and Howlin’ Wolf. The musical lineup reprised 2009’s excellent CD titled Sunnyland with veterans of Sunnyland’s band: Steve Freund (guitar), Sam Burckhardt (tenor sax), Kenny Smith (drums) and Bob Stroger (bass), along with Hubert Sumlin (guitar) and Barrelhouse Chuck (piano).  The band opened with Chuck’s spot-on Sunnyland style piano instrumentals, along with some jazzy numbers that featured the horn section. Hubert Sumlin, Wolf’s longtime guitarist, joined in to sing the classic “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” for his second appearance on the Petrillo stage that night.

But it was Zora Young, a distant relative of Wolf’s and a protégé of Sunnyland Slim, who commanded the spotlight on the Petrillo. Strutting on stage with a long blonde wig and a bright red outfit, Young perked up the crowd with several of her lively original tunes: “It Ain’t Over (Til the Fat Lady Sings)”, “Bad Track Record,” and “Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones”. But it was her version of Wolf’s “Forty Four” (as in the handgun) that really hit the target.

Saturday, June 12

Toronzo Cannon part 1Gibson’s Crossroads stage was the place to be Saturday afternoon. Toronzo Cannon and the Cannonball Express kicked things off at noon with a sizzling set that culminated in a “guitar sacrifice.”

Toronzo Cannon photos: Airick LaPratt


Toronzo Cannon part 2

            We just missed Sugar Blue’s performance (that was no doubt phenomenal), but could hear the final notes and the roar of the crowd as we approached. It must have been a tough act to follow but Sonny Rhodes and his trio drew quite a crowd that had them dancing and singing along. Dressed in red pants, Texan Rhodes elicited all manner of sounds, effects and musical styles with his red electric lap slide guitar.  Guitarist Gary Martin turned in a very animated performance as he expertly played his Gibson while jumping and dancing along during his lively, imaginative solos, which drew cheers from the crowd. The band played a delightful mix of retro musical styles and served up everything from rockabilly to danceable Texas blues and low down blues. They also covered the romantic R&B classic, “Since I Met You” that had older couples slow dancing in the aisles.

Sonny Rhodes
Sonny Rhodes

Over at the Front Porch stage (a.k.a. The Sexy Stage), Chicago soul singer Andre Williams, dressed in a white suit and hat and flanked by two go-go girls on both sides of the stage, was hosting a party in the park. The ladies shook it and Williams wailed on “Bad Mammer Jammer”.  The double entendre number “Bacon Fat” recalled the ‘50s with its “diddley diddley bop bop” chorus. One song had a naughty title and chorus (which we will not repeat here) that caused Williams to give fair warning before leaving the stage for a wardrobe change.  Another “food as sex” song about potatoes was followed by a funny song about “jailbait” got everyone laughing.  It started to rain, but the crowd raised umbrellas and hung onto every last note.

The rain put a dent in the crowd for splendid sets on the Petrillo stage by Nellie “Tiger” Travis and Bobby Parker. Fortunately the rain let up in time for Chicago Blues: A Living History Band with Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, John Primer, Lurie Bell and Carlos Johnson.  This ensemble was a reunion of 2009’s critically acclaimed CD that paid tribute to the titans of Chicago blues.

These four headliners were all chosen for their direct connection to blues history and for carrying on the traditional style of Chicago blues.  Special guests included guitarist/vocalist Carlos Johnson and singer Mike Avery. The Living History Band was stellar as well, including Matthew Skoller (harmonica), Billy Flynn (guitar), Johnny Iguana (keyboards), Felton Crews (bass) and Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith (drums)--all top performers, session/sidemen, recording artists and (in three cases) bandleaders in their own right who have worked with many blues legends.

Billy Boy Arnold

Billy Boy Arnold, the elder statesman of the group who never seems to age, played harp and delivered several songs in his smooth, soulful voice from the CD including “She’s Love Crazy,” and “My Little Machine” (made famous by his mentor John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson).  Arnold also performed his own hit, the often-covered “I Wish You Would.”

The rain stopped and the crowd returned in time to see John Primer cover his late mentor Muddy Waters on “Sugar Sweet” with help from Billy Flynn on slide guitar and Billy Branch on harp.

Cousin to Magic Sam, Mike Avery is an outstanding, soulful singer rooted in R&B; unlike most blues belters, he goes for, and hits, high notes.  Avery’s pipes soared to the rafters on his cousin's "Out of Bad Luck."

Billy Branch commanded the stage and got the audience stompin’ and cheering on his breathtaking version of Junior Wells’ classic “Hoodoo Man Blues” and then on James Cotton’s “One More Mile.”  Talk about lung power!

Carlos Johnson strolled on stage while singing and playing “drinkin’ scotch, no drinkin’ gin”.  Now it was time for everyone to get in the act as the players all joined on stage to trade solos and jam away, as the crowd expressed its approval.

Lurrie BellThe excitement was building and then Lurrie Bell was introduced to lay down some fiery slide work on “Dust My Broom”.  Bell's tortured vocal lament, as well as his emotion-drenched guitar, on Willie Dixon's dirge-like "My Love Will Never Die," (immortalized by Otis Rush) held the fans spellbound.  Bell conjured Wolf and got the crowd dancing on the rhythmic “Shake For Me”.

The entire cast returned for a joyous finale that had the fans on their feet singing along. The musicians each had a turn to solo and sing a verse on an extended version of Muddy Waters’ “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock and Roll” that ended Saturday night on a celebratory note and earned a standing ovation.


Sunday, June 13

Guitar Shorty may not be as famous as Buddy Guy, but he is every bit as talented and deserving of greater notoriety. Like Buddy, David William Kearney is a triple threat: phenomenal guitarist, powerful singer, clever songwriter and not to mention an exciting showman. Like Buddy, he was an influence on Jimi Hendrix. (Shorty was married to the late guitar legend’s sister Marcia when he lived in Seattle).

And like Buddy and Jimi, Shorty proved he is headlining talent who deserves to play the major stages, as he wowed the Front Porch crowd Sunday afternoon. After a long instrumental warm up, Shorty and the band played songs from his latest Alligator CD, the appropriately titled Bare Knuckles. “Too Late” started out slow and sad; it built up steam as the short, stocky guitarist hit us with a solo in which he tapped notes from the neck of his guitar. Shorty used that technique repeatedly, along with other guitar tricks including wah-wah pedal and playing with his teeth.  “Please Mr. President,” a topical song that asks the world leader “send some stimulus to me” shook the stage with its funky bass lines.  He also covered Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s “True Lies”, giving it an elder statesman’s spin on the cheating game.

Guitar ShortyAt one point Shorty leaped from the four foot stage, went into the photo pit to pose for photos, pass out picks to fans in front, and wipe his brow, never missing a note!  And incidentally, Shorty is 71-years-old and he can do old school rap, too.

Guitar Shorty
Photo: Tim Holek


It was a family reunion on the Petrillo stage as Vance Kelly, daughter Vivian and the Backstreet Band, complete with horn section and backup singers, brought South Side soul, R&B and some surprises to Grant Park. On any given night, you can see Vance Kelly and his talented clan on stage at venues all over Chicago. There isn’t any style of music they can’t handle.  Vivian covered soul classics like “The Clean Up Woman” and “Steal Away” while Dad wove together medleys of R&B hits like “Who’s Makin’ Love,”  “Jodie’s Got Your Girlfriend,” “Love And Happiness” and “I Wanna Tie Tie You Baby”.

Vivian Kelly
Vivian Kelly   photo: Tim Holek


Vance Kelly It rained briefly during their set and perhaps as an ode to the weather, Vance rocked out on guitar with a majestic rendition Prince’s “Purple Rain”, followed by a Hendrix style version of the National Anthem, with a little Van Halen thrown in for good measure. The soggy crowd was on its collective feet to cheer on Kelly for his over the top finale.

Vance Kelly  photo: Tim Holek


The highly anticipated  supergroup The Chicago Blues Reunion (yet another reunion!) was next, starring Charlie Musselwhite (harmonica), Corky Siegel (harmonica), Harvey Mandel (guitar), Nick Gravenites (guitar), Barry Goldberg (keyboards) and Sam Lay (guitar, drums).

These musicians were members of the first generation of American white boy blues bands from the 1960s who followed in the footsteps of their heroes, Chicago’s blues giants like Muddy, Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Otis Rush. They also broke down racial barriers by having integrated bands during the Civil Rights era. They brought Chicago blues to a whole new audience and expanded the genre to create musical fusions that included rock, jazz, classical, Latin and world music.

Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Sam Lay, Nick Gravenites), Mike Bloomfield’s Electric Flag (Gravenites) and The Siegel Schwall Blues Band (Corky Siegel) were the innovators, along with Harvey Mandel and Charlie Musselwhite, who were a team in the early days. Barry Goldberg’s Hammond B-3 prowess has been tapped by everyone from Steve Miller and Bob Dylan to Hollywood soundtracks. Their lives and careers have been intertwined for decades and it is on rare occasion that they join together. Sunday night was probably their fourth Chicago reunion.

The set opened with Gravenites’ song “Buried Alive in the Blues” which he famously wrote for Janis Joplin, who died before she could record it. The band jammed on an extended version of the song, egging each other on with duets and solos. Corky Siegel, whose alter ego leads a chamber-blues ensemble, brought out a couple young violinists who joined the harp player for a rousing instrumental, that sounded vaguely Middle Eastern at times, and ended with the trio falling to the floor.

Musselwhite and Mandel faced off for some Chicago blues with “Help Me” and then a pleasant, jazzy cover of “Wade in the Water.” It was followed by a lengthy, haunting, psychedelic blues-rock instrumental trip, titled “Christo Redemptor” from Musselwhite’s acclaimed debut album “Stand Back!”, which was considered most avante-garde in the mid-1960s.

Then it was back to Chicago blues as Sam Lay and surprise guest James Cotton came out for the encore, “Got My Mojo Workin’.”

Chicago Blues Fest 2010 was a satisfying weekend of Wolf tributes, reunions and dare we say: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. There was more solid talent on more stages than one person could possibly take in, unless they had a time machine.


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