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LIVE REVIEW -- Chicago Blues Festival 2011
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Chicago Blues Festival 2011 Review

Sweet Home Chicago:

A Centennial Celebration of Robert Johnson

June 10-12

Chicago, IL


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Shemekia Copeland crowned with group
Shemekia Copeland is crowned the new Queen of the Blues
L to R: Marie Dixon, Shemekia, Rose Reed, Cookie Taylor

by Linda Cain
photos: Jennifer Wheeler
(except where noted)

Chicago Blues Festival 2011 found itself in a transitional state as the city just elected its first new mayor since 1989, Rahm Emanuel.  Longtime Blues Fest organizer Barry Dolins retired. The Mayor’s Office of Special Events, which had hosted the Blues Fest since its inception in 1984, no longer exists. That department now has been combined with the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which was headed by the grand dame of Chicago culture, Lois Weisberg, for decades. She, too, has retired

Since the city has been losing millions on its many free outdoor festivals, many of the fests were absorbed by Taste of Chicago.  Mayor Richard M. Daley, before he retired, decided to keep the festivals free. The Chicago Park District now runs the Taste of Chicago, which will include special one-day music tributes to replace Celtic Fest, Gospel Fest, Country Music Fest and Viva Chicago Latin Music Fest.  The Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Special Events now handles the Chicago Blues Fest and the Jazz Fest which each have their own weekends in June and September, respectively.

The result for this year was a scaled back Chicago Blues Festival, with less acts and mainly local talent, most of whom can be seen performing in the city’s blues clubs on a regular basis. But that’s not to say that gifted Chicago artists such as John Primer, Guy King, Dave Herrero, Willie “Big” Eyes Smith, Billy Branch, Sam Lay, Magic Slim and many others don’t deserve to perform on a festival stage -- quite the opposite. These artists perform all over the world to appreciative audiences. It’s just that the locals have already seen them umpteen times. Let’s face it; Chicagoans are spoiled because we have such great music of all kinds in our town.

When Chicagoans go to New Orleans for Jazz & Heritage Fest, we are happy to see legendary Big Easy talent like Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Walter “Wolfman” Washington or Bryan Lee on the smaller stages. Whereas the locals can go see mega acts like Dave Matthews Band on the big stage at Jazz Fest.

            So while Chicago’s local blues fans may have been disappointed at the lack of out-of-town, big name acts, the tourists were delighted to catch Chi-town talent all at once in Grant Park without having to wander all over town. And thousands of serious blues fans did, indeed, turn out to see our hometown heroes, despite the cold, damp weather at night in the park.

            It was a fest filled with highlights: Shemekia Copeland was crowned the new Queen of the Blues, Honeyboy Edwards and Lonnie Brooks were given their own official days by the new Mayor and Alligator Records’ 40th Anniversary was honored with a proclamation from the Mayor’s office, too. Not to mention all of the exciting performances that took place on the festival’s four main stages.

It should be mentioned that the three-day Chicago Blues Fest included three stages that aren’t listed on the city’s official schedule.

Fernando Jones’ Blues Camp for Kids tent, featured displays about this worthy educational program to teach children to play blues music. It also hosts a small stage in the back of the tiny tent featuring students playing alongside professional blues musicians. The exciting live music always drew in quite a crowd each day.

Zone Perfect Stage gave away free snack bars and hosted daily performances by Delta style picker and slide dobro player Donna Herula, accompanied by Tony Nardiello on acoustic guitar.

A devotee of Robert Nighthawk, Herula explained the history of the various resonator guitars she uses.  The duo played songs from her new CD, The Moon Is Rising, along with music from other Delta artists. She represented the Windy City Blues Society in this year’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis in the solo/duo category.

For the second year, the Windy City Blues Society hosted the WCBS Street Stage which featured top acts like Kilborn Alley Blues Band, Lurrie Bell, Rob Blaine’s Big Otis Blues w/ Peaches, Nick Moss & the Fliptops w/Curtis Salgado and more.  The WCBS tent drew sizeable crowds of appreciative fans again this year. (See more below).

Here are just some of the highlights of Chicago Blues Festival 2011. To see hundreds of exciting photos of the three day event, visit our Facebook page


Friday, June 10

Sam Lay, Bob Riedy, Bob Corritore on the WCBS Street Stage

Sam Lay

The legendary drummer Sam Lay -- who backed everyone from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Paul Butterfield and Bob Dylan -- sat down, sang and played guitar for this lively set in the tent. Sam told a story about flying to Chicago and getting a full body scan at airport security. “I made sure to take Viagra before I went through the machine,” he joked, and proceeded to play a fine set of Chicago and Delta blues with a little country thrown in for good measure.

With Sam on guitar, Bob Corritore on harp, Bob Riedy on keyboards, Mark Wydra on guitar, Harlan Terson on bass and drummer Jon Hiller, the sextet kicked off with Muddy’s tune “Blow Wind Blow.”

The second song featured a duo with Sam and harp player Corritore, playing a slow, Delta style tune about a woman who “keeps you buying her wigs all the time.”

The next number was a shuffle in which Sam sang , “Gonna shoot that woman, ‘cause she don’t treat me right.” Sam called out solos to his band mates, all of whom received cheers from the crowd.

A rumba beat kicked off the classic blues song made famous by Fats Domino, “Sick & Tired” which got everyone’s attention. For “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” another blues classic, Corritore stepped out for solo, as the crowd cheered him on.

Sam surprised the blues faithful with a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” which challenged guitarist Wydra to do some quick country pickin’.

Another countryish song featured Sam playing some stinging guitar notes, served up Muddy style.

A lush, moody blues jam, along the lines of the Allman Brothers’ “Stormy Monday,” closed the set. As Riedy caressed the keys with finesse, Sam closed his eyes and leaned back, delighting in Riedy’s fine solo. It was a high compliment from a living blues icon.

The next day, Sam Lay performed on the Front Porch stage, while wearing a cape, backed by a slightly different band, including special guest Billy Branch (see our Facebook page for photos).


Super Chikan on the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage

Super Chikan

Playing a guitar made from a rifle and backed by an all female band, Super Chikan (a.k.a. James Johnson, nephew of the late Big Jack Johnson) was a sight to behold.

With his infectious, gold-toothed smile, funny facial expressions and nonstop motion on stage, the Mississippi native coaxed some incredible, unearthly sounds from his homemade rifle guitar. Chikan switched to blues harp for a very upbeat song with a long instrumental passage, on which he played slide on his ersatz rifle.

An award-winning entertainer and musician, Chikan  then shifted into a “boogie woogie” number, while sliding like Elmore James, which got the crowd boppin’ and hootin’.  Chikan used the wah- wah pedal to create some screaming and crying sounds from his rifle axe.

He switched to a colorful, bejeweled banjo-shaped guitar and played a John Lee Hooker style boogie intro. He told a story about yodeling as a youth, inspired by Roy Acuff and Jimmy Rodgers. “Yo doe lay dee hoo!” he sang. As the story goes, his mom didn’t approve and threatened to shoot him. “You should try to sing like John Lee,” Mama advised. So Chikan obliged with a chorus of “how how how how,” as he played some boogie and got the crowd boogying.

Chikan moved about the stage, creating wondrous sounds on his self-made guitar by licking the strings or grabbing the neck and sliding his hand up and down the length. The ladies on drums, bass and keyboards churned behind him.  He even sashayed over to the keyboardist and got HER to play the guitar strings with her mouth, while she kept on playing the keys. Then Chikan played with his tongue again.

Chikan switched to a Buddy Guy/Jimi Hendrix style that was nearly psychedelic. He also strummed his guitar to create a chicken clucking sound, and then went back to yodeling. And he threw in some more John Lee Hooker for good measure. Mama would have approved.

It was a fun set of “feel good” music on a foggy, damp day. Just what the doctor ordered.


Kilborn Alley on the WCBS Stage

Kilborn Alley delivered a tough, soulful set with original songs from their latest release Better Off Now. For the second year in a row, the band from Champaign/Urbana drew a sizable crowd, which included a number of fellow musicians checking them out, such as Bob Corritore and Rockin’ Johnny. In fact if you wanted to rub shoulders with blues players, the WCBS stage was the place to be all weekend.

Featuring the deep, gritty, soulful vocals of Andrew Duncanson, the quartet really got a groove going from the first note. They played extended versions of their catchy songs that turned into smokin’ jams, as the listeners stood mesmerized.  Kilborn Alley tends to have that effect on people and deserves a spot on one of the Blues Fest’s regular stages.

Petrillo Music Shell Stage

Eddie Cotton

Eddie Cotton knows how to work a room, or in this case, a festival crowd of thousands! The Mississippi native got the fans cheering and clapping from the first song with his high energy singing and playing, while backed by a superbly tight band comprised of fellow Mississippians on Hammond organ, guitar, harp, bass and drums Guitarist Jarekus Singleton and drummer D’Mar (a.k.a. Derrick Martin) played with their own bands during Blues Fest, too.

While playing a Chuck Berry style song, Cotton suddenly fell to the floor (whether by accident or on purpose, it wasn’t clear). While he was down there, Cotton played guitar while lying on his back, kicking his legs in the air. The crowd went wild.

Standing upright, he changed to a heavy boogie with help from his harp player as he sang “Goodbye Baby”. A helluva showman, Cotton got the crowd on its feet, clapping to the boom-boom boogie beat, as a low-hanging cloud descended over the city’s skyline, shrouding the fest in a mist.

But the dampness couldn’t dampen the blues fans’ spirits, as Eddie Cotton played lightnin’ licks on his white Gibson while his impressive band  kept up the pace. The pulsating bass and pounding drums drew the crowd into the tribal feeling and Cotton had the audience in the palm of his hand. Whatever he said they should do, the fans gladly obliged.

They stood up and waved their fest programs in the air; they applauded and sang on cue. Cotton directed them like a preacher in the pulpit.

The band played a song by Howlin Wolf “for the ladies” -- “Shake It, Baby.” By now, Cotton had turned the pavilion stage into an official party, especially when the familiar grooves of “It’s Your Thing” by the Isley Brothers rang out. The guitarist got the crowd to sing and clap along. He got them jumping up and down, and did so himself with a gospel-like fervor. “Let me hear you say, YEAH!” he asked, and then exited the stage as the band played a funky vamp. Eddie Cotton is a tough act to follow!


Nevertheless, Sanctified Grumblers did their best to keep the crowd’s buoyant energy going with a lively set of old timey Delta and country blues, played by Eric Noden on acoustic guitar, Rick “Cookin’” Sherry on harp and washboard (with tiny cymbal attached) and standup bass by Beau Sample. (Too bad their sousaphone player wasn’t with them). But they had one of Chicago’s best blues drummers to help out -- Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith.  

In keeping with the Fest’s theme of a Sweet Home Chicago tribute to Robert Johnson’s Centennial, the local trio played several Johnson songs, including the lively “Hot Tamales and Red Hots,” which got the crowd going and most likely worked up their appetites. Sadly, the stars of Friday’s Robert Johnson tribute, David “Honeyboy” Edwards (age 95) and Hubert Sumlin (age 79) were unable to perform due to health issues.

However the mayor’s office issued a proclamation from the stage, citing Edwards’ many accomplishments and declared June 10, 2011 to be David “Honeyboy” Edwards Day in Chicago.

Rocky Lawrence
Rocky Lawrence
photo: Dianne Dunklau

Rocky Lawrence contributed his considerable talents to the Johnson tribute. Decked out in a Johnson style outfit– suit, vest, tie, hat – Lawrence played Johnson tunes note for note, with gusto on vocals and a skilled technique on solo acoustic guitar.  He also covered other Delta artists of yore and told stories, proving himself to be not just a Johnson impersonator

For the classic “Love In Vain,” he was joined by Johnson’s grandson, Steve Johnson, on vocals.  He also played the song made famous by Elvis Presley, “Mystery Train,” in a furious, rapid-fire strumming style. The crowd stood and cheered this surprising and delightful performer.


North Mississippi’s Duwayne Burnside was a curious choice for a Robert Johnson tribute. His band came out first, plugged in, and took a while to get going. There seemed to be technical difficulties for the sax, keys, drums, bass and guitar players. They played a brief instrumental of a Marvin Gaye song, as their leader entered. Duwayne came to the stage, strapped on his Tele and walked around soloing, in a very easy-going manner, while the band warmed up.  Unfortunately there was a lot of feedback.

Duwayne played a Hendrix-y blues-rock version of Louis Jordan’s “On the Outskirts of Town”, leading his band through its paces.  He didn’t sing much and played mostly instrumental versions of songs.  He paid tribute to his dad, the late, great R.L. Burnside, by playing his song “Skinny Woman” in a non-traditional style. The guitarist segued into a funky “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” that was mostly an improvised instrumental.

Duwayne proved to be the opposite of Eddie Cotton. He doesn’t put on a show or engage the crowd at all.  He seemed busy engaging his bandmates as he strolled up to each one of them while he played, sometimes with his back to the crowd.  Despite his ultra-laid back demeanor, Duwayne really can get down on the guitar, playing either as smooth as silk, or fiery as hell, at the drop of a hat.

Throughout the set, the band remained very loose, and simply followed Duwayne’s cues. They group never did get into a groove. A perfunctory nod to Robert Johnson closed the set.  Two Sanctified Grumblers, the guitarist and harp player, Noden and Sherry, came on stage to join Duwayne and band for “Sweet Home Chicago,” sending the great big blues crowd into the cold damp night on a cheerful note.


Saturday, June 11

Zac Harmon on the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage

Zac Harmon
photo: Michael Kurgansky

The Mississippi stage was the place to see outstanding out-of-town acts. Mississippi’s Zac Harmon, along with his stop-and-turn-on-a-dime band (keyboards, bass and drums) was no exception. Zac was quite the showman, swinging his hips and guitar while playing to the ladies standing by the front of stage.

After a long guitar intro, Zac sang the blues, “Little Bluebird, please sing for me.” His sturdy vocals and dramatic delivery drew listeners in.  He then shushed the band for a quiet solo of powerful string bending.  The guitarist then exploded into furious strumming and then fired off a stream of manic notes, not unlike Buddy Guy, as the band grew louder. Zac stomped on the wah-wah and played wailing notes. He finished his solo with a scream, as the crowd cheered.

He called to the band for a fast shuffle and played a flurry of notes. Zac got the crowd into soul-clapping. The music was very upbeat, with a nice keyboard solo.  Zac was a nonstop motion machine, dancing all over the stage

“Do you mind if I turn this into a Mississippi juke joint?” the charismatic guitarist asked the audience, which cheered its approval. The band stopped playing and clapped along, getting the crowd to holler “Hey, Whoo.”

Zac and the band danced in unison, while the keyboard man sang a number.  Zac and the bass player danced over to the piano man and surrounded him, shakin’  their hips.

The band launched into an upbeat version of “Got My Mojo Workin’” with a barrelhouse piano accompaniment.

Zac stopped to ask: “Do you know it’s OK to love the Lord and play the blues? Do you mind if we praise him?”  Zac and the band then played some down home, stompin’ gospel music, while shouting “Jesus!”  throughout the number. The crowd swayed and clapped along.  Suddenly the band worked its way back into “Mojo Workin’” as the audience sang along.

If you want to know how they party in Ole Miss, don’t miss Zac Harmon the next time he comes to your town.


Tribute to Pinetop on the Front Porch Stage

Willie Smith
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith
photo: Michael Kurgansky

Blues pianist Pinetop Perkins was a living legend, as well as a fixture at the Chicago Blues Festival. He passed away at age 97 on March 21, 2011 after having just won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, Joined At The Hip, on which he partnered with longtime collaborator and friend, Willie “Big” Eyes Smith. Both Pinetop and Willie performed together in Muddy Waters’ band. Willie played drums with Muddy for 19 years.

For this tribute to Pinetop, Willie put together a righteous ensemble to honor his late friend:  Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith (Willie’s son) on drums, Muddy Waters’ bassist Bob Stroger, Barrelhouse Chuck (who apprenticed with many blues piano legends, including Pinetop), blues guitar traditionalist Little Frank Krakowski, and another young guitarist named Max. Bob Stroger and Willie both wore bright orange outfits, in keeping with blues style.

This tribute band didn’t cover Pinetop’s solo material; the music was more of a tribute to early Chicago Blues when it had just come up from the Delta, a musical genre of which Pinetop played a big part. They performed Muddy Waters songs and other material (on which Pinetop played) in an easy-going ensemble style, with tasteful solos and playful interaction among the band.

Kenny sang a slow Chicago blues tune from behind drums, while all of his band mates played solos. Then Bob Stroger took over and kicked it off with a boogie beat. Bob sang lead vocals and served up a nice groove that got the crowd dancing.

Willie Smith came out and sang “I’d rather be an old woman’s sweetheart, than a young woman’s fool,” from “Old Woman’s Sweetheart” on his Born In Arkansas CD. The ensemble was complete now that Willie joined in on harmonica, playing a solo while Stroger’s bass kept the heartbeat.

Willie sang some more Muddy, covering “Long Distance Call.”  It started as a slow, emotional blues, with Chuck’s piano and Willie’s harp interacting. Frank joined in on slide guitar and played a stinging, Muddy-style solo, winning cheers from the crowd as the song climaxed. Then Chuck barrelhoused  the 88s with thundering chords while Willie wrapped it up, singing the final line with gusto: “One more mule is kickin’ in your stall.”  Muddy would have approved.

Willie kicked off the upbeat “I Was Born in Arkansas” (from his CD of same name) with a vibrant harp solo, followed by Frank’s tasty guitar solo. Stroger played a feel-good bouncy beat, which inspired some dirty dancing by our picnic table...some VERY dirty dancing.

The band switched to lowdown blues, for “Rub My Back,” (also from Willie’s Arkansas CD).  Willie’s vocals and harp playing were mournful as he sang: “I work hard every day. I’m as tired as a man can be. How your love soothes the pain.  And rub my back.” The band and played quietly so Barrelhouse Chuck could do his thing. Willie praised Chuck: “That boy’s got grooves!”

Frank played a stingin’ solo and Willie declared “He’s got the blues y’all!” The cheering fans prompted the band to kick it up a notch and Frank really made his guitar speak!

Willie was clearly having great fun. There was time for one last upbeat shuffle, a short one. And then band bid goodbye, no doubt feeling proud after delivering a satisfying set of traditional Chicago blues. Pinetop would have loved it.


Petrillo Music Shell Stage

Billy Branch played the National Anthem on his harp to open the stage on a patriotic note.  For the song’s climax, he hit a super high note and held it for the big finish as the crowd cheered him on.

Dave Specter Jimmy Johnson
photo: Harvey Tillis

Dave Specter Band with Jimmy Johnson

At 6 p.m., guitarist Dave Specter and his band -- Harlan Terson on bass, drummer Marty Binder and  Brother John on grand piano and organ – performed a soulful set of original songs to warm up the crowd. Specter is strictly an instrumentalist, but he knows how to make his guitar do the talking as he performed a variety of styles from jazzy blues to shuffles, along the lines of Ronnie Earl or Duke Robillard. Never one for flashy solos, Specter’s melodic lines wove in and out of the musical arrangements with grace and style. The band breezed through three cuts from Spectified, Specter’s critically acclaimed 2010 CD: “Lumpus D'Rumpus,”  “Stick to the Hip” and “Rumba & Tonic.”  The band played “New West Side Stroll” and then brought out special guest, blues icon Jimmy Johnson.

Jimmy walked out while playing a catchy guitar intro and then moved into one of his best known songs, “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”  Jimmy’s signature soulful vocals rang out across the park.  He may be 80-something, but you’d never know it, as his high, lonesome tenor has lost none of its quality over the years. Like Specter, the blues giant’s guitar solos are intricate and melodious.

For his second number, Jimmy got gritty, with a down and dirty solo on “Take Me Back Baby,” on which he demonstrated his outstanding chops and string bending. He and Specter worked their guitars in a call-and-response fashion as they took turns soloing, to cheers from the audience.

The band played an upbeat shuffle with a driving beat for a song about a train leaving town. Jimmy’s vocals were as strong and soulful as his guitar notes. Specter and Brother John each got to play a solo. And then it was over, just as things were steaming up. Jimmy said goodbye and left the stage at 6:45. It was a set that was way too short but long on talent.

At this point, the weather turned cold and windy. Still, the chilly, light rain couldn’t dampen the spirit of the blues fans gathered in Grant Park this night, as they opened their umbrellas on and off throughout the night.


Carl Weathersby

Carl Weathersby

At 7:20 p.m. Carl Weathersby came charging out of the gate, dressed in a deep pink outfit (his band members dressed all in summer white) as he hit us with a scorching guitar solo on his Flying V while he prowled the stage. The former protégé and bandmate of Albert King sang “If That Ain’t The Blues” and his guitarist Corey Dennison contributed a searing solo.

Backed by Dennison on guitar, along with keys, bass and drums, Carl and company then switched gears into a hypnotic West Side/Otis Rush type of groove for “My Baby Caught The Train.” Carl momentarily converted his vocal style to a deep Clarence “Frogman” Henry voice.

He then declared: “It’s my duty to make you remember Albert King” and launched into a rocked out solo with his super tight groovin’ band burning behind him.

The fans under umbrellas soaked up Carl’s intense note bending and hot guitar licks to keep them warm.  Carl paused, as the crowd cheered, and he moved to a slower tempo as he sang the hard core blues: “It’s so hard to make it by yourself/ When your woman’s with someone else.”

The organ swelled; Carl came to front of stage and wailed on his guitar, his band storming behind him. On cue, they stopped. Carl hit one note and held it while the crowd cheered his passionate performance.

Without pausing, they moved right into a funky Southern Soul song dedicated to his wife.  The crowd sang along, while Carl wove melodic guitar lines and the keyboardist played the requisite horn parts.

Then it was back to rockin’ with a Texas style number, followed by a funky treat on which Carl and Corey traded some sizzling guitar licks.

For the final song medley, they served up some groovin’ soul. Carl started out singing a bit of “Feel Like Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home” but then turned it into another lengthy, exciting tune. He ended with a romantic, soul song that got people into a mellow mood.

Once a member of Sons of the Blues, which continues to play straight-ahead Chicago Blues styles, Weathersby has expanded his musical domain and become a master showman and guitar hero.

Billy Branch & Sons of the Blues with special guest Magic Slim

With a brief intro by the Sons of the Blues, Billy Branch burst onto the stage, blasting away on harmonica, with Willie Henderson’s four-piece horn section joining in. It’s not every day you see Billy Branch with a horn section. Not only that, but Billy’s powerful harp blowing held its own with the mighty brass players. The rest of the band was equally impressive: Ariyo on keyboards (who’s played with everyone from Otis Rush to B.B. King), new SOB Dan Carelli on guitar, and the rhythm section of original SOB’s Mose Rutues, Jr. on drums and Nick Charles on bass.

 Dressed in a pastel purple suit and summer hat, Branch and the SOB’s paid homage to Chicago’s classic blues era, while updating the music with a contemporary feel and high energy.

On “One More Mile” (by Muddy Waters and James Cotton) Billy’s harp got a workout, to the delight of the blues lovin’ concert goers. Jimmy Reed’s “That’s Alright,” featured Billy’s powerful, deep vocals and a stinging, Muddy-style solo by Carelli.

Ariyo played a majestic piano solo as Billy grabbed his wireless harmonica mic and wandered into the the seating area, heading all the way to the back of the pavilion, much to the delight of the sea of blues enthusiasts. The crowd absolutely loved it, and cheered the whole time, while Billy played remotely with the band backing him from the stage.

Magic Slim Billy Branch

Back onstage, Billy introduced “One of Chicago’s true living legends --  Magic Slim!” Backed by the SOB’s playing Slim’s familiar thumpin’ beat, the West Side blues guitar great hit us with “Goin’ To Mississippi” on which both Billy and Slim soloed. The familiar tune got people up and shakin’ their hips.

Slim switched to low down Chicago Blues as he pleaded: “Baby please don’t dog me when you are doin’ wrong yourself”.

And that was it for Slim’s too-brief appearance.

Billy and band continued, singing “shake, shake, shake” on “Mellow Down Easy” which turned into a medley of “Hey Bo Diddley” (which he recorded for Chicago Blues : A Living History, The (R)evolution Continues).

Then was time for a fun jump blues number, with help from two female backup singers: “Baby Let Me Butter Your Corn.”  For the encore, Billy and the SOB’s played a ‘60s style, soulful instrumental that sent the happy crowd into the night feeling bluesified.


Sunday, June 12

Nellie “Tiger” Travis on the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage

Not only is she a tigress, but Nellie is a chameleon of the Blues; she can change musical styles as easily as she changes hairstyles and wigs. We almost didn’t recognize her on stage, as her blonde braids of the past were replaced by a hip, new short style with a red top. She wore an wearing an eye-catching pastel mini-dress, layered with fabric resembling flower petals.

Nellie sang a heartfelt soul song, “Koko” in honor of the late Koko Taylor, her friend and mentor, from her new CD “I’m Going Out Tonight.”  “Koko will forever be the queen of the blues. It will take a lifetime to fill her shoes,” Nellie sang with tender emotion in her expressive voice.

“Born in Mississippi,” also from her new CD, featured a “Crosscut Saw” type of rumba beat. Nellie used a growl in her voice as she sang about driving I-57 South and getting ready for some fun in the “heart of the Delta.”  She followed with a sexy blues number as she purred: “I treat my man so good…” which got the attention of all the males in the house.

Nellie sang another tribute to Koko, “Let The Good Times Roll,” that got everybody singing and clapping along. Her lively set continued, but we had to dash to the Front Porch stage.


Mud Morganfield on the Front Porch Stage

Mud Morganfield
Mud Morganfield, E.G. McDaniel
photo: Michael Kurgansky

We arrived just in time to catch the end of Mud’s set. One look at the man on stage and there’s no mistaking who his daddy is; the resemblance to Muddy Waters is striking, as are his vocals and mannerisms. Mud, Jr. was seated on a stool, dressed in lavender vest and pants, confidently singing “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”. Mud, Jr. is known for his Muddy Waters tributes, as well as his own original music.

            His band is as impressive of a lineup that ever played with Muddy, as well. Drummer Kenny Smith is the son of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith who played drums with Muddy. Kenny grew up in the blues and, like his dad, is one of the genre’s most sought after and active musicians. Rick Kreher was one of the last guitar players to have worked with Muddy while he was alive.

Billy Flynn’s authentic lead guitar talents were tapped for the soundtrack of the film Cadillac Records. That’s him playing when they show Muddy performing in the movie. Harp player Bob Corritore cut his teeth performing in some of Chicago’s roughest blues bars before he moved to Arizona to open the Rhythm Room, produce CDs and host a radio show.

Bob Corritore
Bob Corritore
photo: Michael Kurgansky 

Barrelhouse Chuck, on piano and keyboard, studied under Pineop Perkins, Sunnyland Slim, Detroit Junior, and Little Brother Montgomery. E.G. McDaniel, on bass, is the son of the late, great Floyd McDaniel.

Put them all together and you’ve got a quintet that plays in the same, ensemble style which Muddy and his compatriots perfected. If you never had the chance to see Muddy Waters play live in his prime, this is about as close to that perfection as you can get.

Back to the Front Porch stage … Mud, Jr. gave his players plenty of room to solo and stretch out, while the crowd responded by getting up and dancing in the sun (which has at last made an appearance).

For his final number, Mud asked the crowd if he should close with “Mojo Workin’” or “Mannish Boy”? The audience chose “Mojo”, which is what Muddy usually closed with.

“Mojo,” with its thumpin’ rhythms, got the people dancing. Bob played an exciting harp solo to audience applause. Chuck gave ‘em a glissando, sliding across the ivories to great effect. Billy’s fluid guitar notes rang out across the park, while Mud’s authoritative vocals delivered the manly message. Now that’s Chicago blues!


John Primer on the Front Porch Stage

John Primer 

John Primer played guitar with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Magic Slim. Not surprisingly, you can hear those influences in Primer’s music.  After 14 years with Slim, Primer went solo in 1995. Since then, he has released 12 of his own albums and toured all over the world to critical acclaim by performing his “real deal” blues.

Primer’s first song, “Going Back to Mississippi,” from his most recent CD, All Original, opened with a harp solo by Russell Green, who was a welcome new addition to Primer’s band for this occasion.  Throughout the set, Primer generously featured the very talented and versatile harp player, with the two of them trading solos or playing in sync.  The upbeat song, with its thumpin’ rhythms seemed to be a nod to Magic Slim.

The second number was definitely an homage to Muddy Waters, and John even sang it complete with Muddy’s signature cadence. It started as a slow blues, with John playing slide; he then turned up the heat and pulled out some stingin’  Muddy style notes. The crowd cheered and the band swelled.  John shouted: “Somebody say Yeah!” and he launched into a lengthy solo, shooting off rapid-fire notes.

The excitement level rose as he sang the opening lyrics to Muddy’s immortal classic, “I’m A Man”: “Everything, everything, everything’s gonna be alright this mornin’ !”  Russ played trills on his harp for a cool solo, the band played in stop-time beat and the crowd cheered “yeah”. The weather became sunny and gorgeous and the fans loved it.

Primer covered Willie Dixon’s “Walking The Back Streets and Crying”, giving it a less depressing tone,  as Primer and Green seemed to be having a grand time taking solo turns.

After playing two upbeat, driving songs in a row, John stopped to say that his favorite music is blues and gospel.  And he proceeded to play a very soulful, countryish version  of the Marshall Tucker song “Can’t You See”. It was a pleasant diversion from Primer’s usual style, complete with Green gently blowing mellifluous notes on his harp, which gave the song a Levon Helm flavor.

After a couple more hip shakin’ songs and another Muddy-style number, Primer and company encored with “Sweet Home Chicago.”

John Primer gave us a richly varied, real deal Chicago blues set with a few added seasonings. As evidenced by this very satisfying set, you could say that John Primer is in his prime!


Petrillo Music Shell Stage

As we approached the Petrillo stage for the last night of Chicago Blues Fest, you could hear Shemekia Copeland’s giant-sized voice ringing out over the massive crowd. At age 31, the daughter of the late, great Texas blueman Johnny Clyde Copeland is a seasoned performer who has racked up blues awards and Grammy nominations, acclaim and accomplishments in her career, which began at age 8 when she performed with her Dad at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. At 18, she recorded her debut CD for Alligator Records, Turn The Heat Up.  Since then she has recorded a total of four CDs for Alligator, which has just released a career retrospective CD, Deluxe Edition. Her 2009 CD on the Telarc label, Never Going Back To Memphis, earned her more awards. And, of course, her live performances never cease to amaze concert-goers.

This night was no exception as Shemekia treated the fest crowd to a pleasing selection of songs from throughout her career, with an emphasis on her first CD. She opened with the defiant “Dirty Water” (from her Telarc CD), and moved into the funky song “Givin’ Up You” (from Alligator’s Soul Truth CD). Her four-piece band really cranked up the volume for the fest; the bass was so loud and powerful, you could feel its vibrations beating against your chest!

She started a slow, dramatic rendering of “Salt in My Wounds,” a song about a breakup, and then built up to the climax with a blast of emotion and vocal power. Now that’s the blues!

The fourth number started out sounding like a Stones song with Shemekia banging on cowbell, to get the crowd going. She belted “Big Lovin’ Woman” from her debut CD on Alligator and you believed every word she sang.

 “Never Going Back to Memphis” (title track from her Telarc disc), is a haunting tale about a murder. Arthur Nielsen employed the perfect accompaniment with his spooky, Pops Staples style of guitar playing.  Shemekia and the band quietly built the mystery and then ended it with a bang, as the crowd cheered them on.

Shemekia dedicated her next song to the late Koko Taylor.  “She might not be here but her spirit is all over the place,” she declared.  Shemekia got the fans clappin’ along as the bass thumped to a loping, “Wang Dang Doodle” type of beat on, “Has Anybody Seen My Man? “also from her debut, Turn the Heat Up. She finished the tune with a Koko inspired wail.

Shemekia changed gears for “Pie in the Sky,” a pleasant, upbeat pop song, written by her father.

She then spoke about her dad, the late Johnny Clyde Copeland and dedicated the next song to him: “Ghetto Child”(also written by her dad, from the Heat CD). Her voice was powerful and moving as she sang the sorrowful tale. The tune began sad and slow, building the pathos as Shemekia’s voice took on a vibrato. Nielsen played a blistering guitar solo. She held a note, seemingly forever, and sent it soaring across the pavilion.

Shemekia moved to the front of the stage and sang the last verse a cappella and without a mic. But how can they hear her way in back?  They did, indeed, hear her incredible voice.  The people 80 rows back let her know by cheering and giving a standing ovation. Wow!

The music suddenly stopped as Shemekia was joined onstage by Cookie Taylor, Marie Dixon, Rose Reed (Jimmy Reed’s daughter) and Shemekia’s mother. Cookie spoke: “Shemekia, you can’t be Koko Taylor. You can’t be Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Ruth Brown or Memphis Minnie. But you can be Shemekia.”

Marie unwrapped a sparkling tiara. Cookie continued. “This is my mother’s crown. This is in memory of my mother and your father,” Cookie said, emotion in her voice. “You are the new Queen of the Blues.” And she placed the crown upon her head, as Shemekia was given a beautiful bouquet. It was a historic moment that no one expected.

Shemekia crowned with roses

Shemekia was tearful and surprised. She stepped to the mic and said: “OMG! I don’t know what to say. I have loved Koko all my life. She will always be The Queen. I love Chicago!”

Pro that she is, Shemekia regained her composure and prepared for her final song by shouting: “Are you ready to rock and roll!?

 “It’s 2 a.m., do you know where your baby is?” She belted out the song from her Wicked album (released long before the musical about the green witch), proudly wearing the crown from the past and carrying it into the future.

Shemekia ended her set at 7 p.m., leaving fans wondering how anything could top this?


Wayne Baker Brooks and  band took the stage at 7:30 p.m. The guitarist/bandleader was accompanied by organ, harmonica, bass and drums -- a stellar group that served as the house band for the rest of the eventful night,  that was a tribute to Alligator Records’ 40th Anniversary.

Wayne kicked it off with two funky, blues-rock numbers, featuring his sizzling guitar hero solos, played by the front of the stage, to big cheers from the excited crowd.

Wayne, who served as the emcee, brought out EddyThe Chief” Clearwater to the sound of pounding Indian drums.

Eddy Clearwater 

Eddy, dressed in a bright coral shirt, studded with rhinestones, walked out while playing a nice ringing guitar, with a touch of Chuck Berry,  for the intro to his original “Good Leavin’ Alone”. The Chief’s voice was forceful as he roared out the message to the no-good woman in the song.

He slowed the tempo for a sad blues song. “I came up the hard way. I had to work from sun to sun.” he sang with intense emotion. The Chief played a West Side style guitar solo and the crowd cheered.  He sang the deep blues: “Everybody’s talkin’ the blues, brother, deep down in your heart.”

And that was it for the Chief.

Next up was Rick Estrin, the harp player/vocalist from the former Little Charlie & The Nightcats, a band now headed by the charismatic frontman, after Little Charlie retired.

Wearing a retro rust-colored suit, Estrin played an instrumental that got the fans cheering his hot harp licks and tricks. Seated in the VIP section to the side of the stage, Billy Branch rose from his seat to get a good look at Estrin’s outstanding performance.

Well, that was just a warm-up for Estrin.  Next he sang “You Can’t Come Back” a bouncy, tell-off tune that got fans boppin’. He played a lyrical harp and really made it speak throughout the song. And then he moved in for the kill. Estrin’s harp disappeared halfway inside his mouth and he played with his hands in the air, as he danced around.

Rick Estrin 

It was a pretty neat trick! The audience roared approval as he played on; Branch stood at attention, watching.  Estrin played his final note to a standing ovation. Now that’s some virtuosic entertainment!


Wayne then introduced Michael Burks, the Iron Man, who earned his moniker from his intense marathon-like performances, fiery guitar playing, gritty vocals and grueling road warrior schedule.

Burks certainly lived up to his nickname. In fact he can add a second nickname if he cares to: the Bulldozer of the Blues!  With only two songs allowed for his set, Burks didn’t waste any time bringing out the big guns. He didn’t even bother to sing much.  The big man burst onto the stage, plowing into his first number with a vengeance, playing powerful,  rockin’ contemporary blues, while demonstrating some mighty, mighty note-bending.

He moved to the front of the stage, just playing his butt off, as the crowd cheered him on.  Whew! Then he slowed down and played quietly as the band followed suit.

Burks brought the band back up to full volume, as the guitarist and band played in perfect sync. Burks played another muscular, emotional guitar solo, and then left the stage to a standing ovation and cheers, leaving ‘em wanting more.


Wayne and Lonnie Baker Brooks

Lonnie Brooks and a surprise

Wayne, the affable emcee, announced: “This is my favorite part, to introduce my Dad.” He then went down the list of Lonnie’s many awards and achievements and said: “Give it up for Mr. Lonnie Brooks!” The crowd stood and cheered the blues giant as he came onstage.

Lonnie asked:  “Are you ready to party!?” as band played behind him.

Wayne suddenly stopped the band. Lonnie looked confused.

WXRT’s Tom Marker, came onstage with Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records.  Tom read a proclamation from Mayor’s office, a lengthy tome that covered highlights of Lonnie’s career, with many whereas-es thrown in. It ended with: “I, Rahm Emanuel declare June 12, 2011 to be Lonnie Brooks Day in Chicago!”

Lonnie was clearly delighted and gave hugs all around. Then Tom read a letter to Mr. Iglauer from the mayor, acknowledging the label’s 40th Anniversary and its accomplishments.

Lonnie was itching to play and shake off the cold. He warmed things up with “Going Back to Louisiana,” where he’s gonna “renew my mojo hand.” The number’s funky, rockin’  bayou beat got the crowd movin’.  At age 77, Lonnie’s vocals are powerful and strong as ever.

Lonnie and Wayne did a little dance as they played in unison, while people rose from their seats to dance to the pulsating beat.  They cheered the organ solo and for Lonnie solos, throughout the number.

Next was “Your Brother Is A Watchdog,” one of the Lonnie Brooks Band’s signature songs on which they play a long jam and pull out all the stops. Lonnie stepped to front of stage to play for photographers in the pit.  Lonnie played notes on his guitar neck with one hand only. Lonnie and Wayne danced and played while the organist soloed. Wayne took a solo at the front of stage, playing in a stabbing style. Lonnie and Wayne moved to stage front and jammed. The crowd stood and cheered. Xena Warrior Princess calls were heard. It was cold and windy, but the music was hot.

Then Lonnie played his train song, rubbing the palm of his hand across the strings to mimic a train’s chugging rhythm to great effect.

The band played an intro that sounded like “Sweet Home Chicago”, but Lonnie wasn’t ready for that yet. He launched into “You’re Using Me” and moved to stage front again. Lonnie struck some power chords, playing on the neck to cheers.

            Wayne called out the whole gang for the grand finale: Eddy The Chief, Iron Man Burks, Queen Shemekia (still wearing her crown), Rick Estrin and brother Ronnie Baker Brooks.

Shemekia, Michael Burks 
Shemekia & Michael Burks

Now it was time for “Sweet Home Chicago,” done up Baker Brooks style!  Lonnie made sure each guest got a turn to sing or play a solo. Lonnie even lowered the mic into the photo pit to let several shooters sing on the chorus.

When it was over, they took a group bow and hugged all around.

There’s no place like home when it comes to Chicago. It was a perfect ending to a three-day blues party!

See our Facebook page for photos.

Copyright 2011, Chicago Blues Guide


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