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LIVE REVIEW -- Chicago Blues Fest 2012

Chicago Blues Festival 2012

June 8 -10

Grant Park, Chicago, IL

Big Llou & Sharon Lewis
Big Llou and Sharon Lewis dance to the music
photo: Jennifer Noble

By Linda Cain

The theme of the 29th annual Chicago Blues Festival 2012 was “A Celebration of Blues, Past and Present.”  The fest featured tributes to blues legends that we lost last year: Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Mojo Buford. 

There were also tributes to other late blues legends, including a centennial celebration of Lightnin’ Hopkins, along with shows celebrating Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf.

There was another reason to celebrate this year -- the arrival of summer in Chicago!  The past couple of years at Chicago Blues Fest saw cold, damp rainy, weather. But this year it was hot summer fun in Grant Park, with temps in the mid to high 80s and bright sunshine. Thankfully shade is plentiful in beautiful Grant Park; there’s usually a nice breeze from the lake, and there were even some water misting stations set up. Of course the best misting spot of all is Buckingham Fountain.

Here are just a few of the highlights of Day 1 of Chicago Blues Festival 2012. With a total of five stages, a blues fan really has to hustle to take it all in. Or one can always take the laid back approach and recline on a blanket near one of the stages for the day, then move to the Petrillo stage for the evening shows. Stay tuned for reports and photos on Days 2 and 3.


Friday, June 8

Fernando Jones & My Band on the Front Porch Stage

Ray Goran
Ray Goren/photo: Jennifer Noble

As we entered Grant Park, headed for the Mississippi Stage to see Eddie C. Campbell, we heard the sound of what seemed to be a young lady singing the blues and sounding good. Who could this young lady be? The voice sounded a bit like Demetria Taylor.

We took a walk past the Front Porch Stage where we saw Fernando Jones & My Band backing up a small young boy -- he couldn’t have been taller than three feet high -- who was singing and playing a Strat like he was Stevie Ray Vaughan. This kid was amazing!  (Editor’s note: we found out later that his name is Ray Goren).  Bless Fernando for all of the work he does with children in his Blues Camps and Columbia College students.


Eddie C. Campbell on the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage

Eddie C. Campbell by Connie
photo: Connie Kenny

As we approached, Eddie was playing a Chuck Berry medley, mixed with Little Richard’s “Lucille,” that had the crowd dancing.  The ace guitar slinger switching gears into an emotional West Side blues, with “All Your Love, I’ve Got to Have One Day,” on which he showed off his trademark guitar style on his famous purple Jazzmaster axe.

Backed by keyboards, rhythm guitar, bass and drums, Campbell played an easy-going countryish shuffe instrumental. Then it was “King of the Jungle,” an older signature tune with ferocious lyrics: “I don’t want nobody in the world to mess with me. I’m the King of the Jungle. As mean as I can be”.

Although he is age 73, you probably wouldn’t want to mess with Mr. Campbell.

The next number had the lyrics “I want to take you higher” but it wasn’t the Sly Stone song. Indeed Eddie C. took us to higher ground with his incredible guitar work, which stylistically was all over the place within one solo. From Isley Brothers soaring guitar ala’ “Who’s That Lady,” to blues and a bit of rock, Eddie jammed on. He certainly would have played longer but his time was up, sadly.

While waiting for the next act, we hoofed it over to the Windy City Blues Society Street Tent Stage to catch a bit of guitarist/vocalist Michael Coleman entertaining  under the tent with some blues standards like “Rock Me Baby”, which the fans appreciated, applauding heartily.

Then it was back to the Mississippi Stage for Vasti Jackson.


Vasti Jackson on the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage

Vasti Jackson by Dianne
photo: Dianne Dunklau

Guitarist/singer Vasti (pronounced Vast-eye) Jackson kicked things off with a high energy, booty shakin’ number, “I’m Your Stimulus Man,” which really got the fans going. Dressed sharply in a white suit, despite the heat, Vasti danced all over the stage as he played; he was a nonstop motion machine, who totally mugged for the cameras in the photo pit.

He kept the crowd going with “Hurricane Season” as he blew into the mic to simulate wind sounds. He launched in to a searing, Buddy Guy style blues-rock solo as he left the stage, walked into the audience and hopped up onto a bench, with the Chicago Skyline as the backdrop. The crowd went nuts with as he mugged for their cameras and cell phones. He never missed a note as he kept playing and moving through the audience. Vasti then climbed back up onstage where he finished the song with a bit of jazzy scat singing. This consummate showman definitely knows how to work a room!

Vasti made a humorous pitch to the listeners to buy his CDs and then launched into the classic cheating song “Steppin’ Out, Steppin’ In”. The keyboard man punched out a delightful barrelhouse solo; Vasti then directed his keyboardist to play in various styles: “Do Herbie Hancock,” he coached. “Now give me some Donnie Hathaway!”  And the piano man obliged. The bass player and drummer had a chance to solo and they played some super funky rhythms for the next song “Blues Boogie” that got the fans dancing along.


Matthew Skoller Band on the Front Porch Stage

Matthew Skoller by Dianne
photo: Dianne Dunklau

The sun was beating down, so we retreated to the shady Front Porch stage to catch the end of Matt Skoller’s set. We caught Matt in the midst of a breathless harmonica solo that captivated the crowd. He was backed by a straight-ahead Chicago blues all star band:  Tom Holland on guitar, Johnny Iguana on grand piano, Kenny Smith on drums and Felton Crews on bass, along with two backup singers, one of whom was Mike Avery, who is kin to the late Magic Sam. For his final song, Matt switched into an easy-going, melodic country-blues-Southern soul number, “It’s a Good Idea to Live Your Life Like That,” which had the crowd swaying and crooning along.


Joe Louis Walker on the Crossroads Stage

Joe Louis Walker
photo: Dianne Dunklau

Joe Louis Walker -- who recently released a new CD titled Hellfire, his first for Alligator Records -- packed them in by the Crossroads Stage for a sizzling set in the hot afternoon sun. Known for his exciting live performances, it was no surprise that nearly every blues fan in the park stopped by.

Walker was accompanied by equally exciting bandmates. Bertha Blades, a feisty female backup singer belted it out with a gritty powerful voice. Joe played an amazing slide solo, then displayed some varied techniques by rubbing his fingers and hand all over the strings.

Murali Coryell (son of jazz fusion guitarist Larry) assisted on second guitar and got to play a wailing bluesy solo on “Bye Bye Baby.”  Soaring four-part harmonies were featured on two songs from Hellfire: the very Stones-like “Ride” and the rhythmic gospel number “Soldier for Jesus” that had folks singing and clapping along.

The drummer kicked into some second line New Orleans style beats, JLW played another scorching slide solo, Bertha swirled and did high kicks as the band played the bluesiest song so far, “I Won’t Do That.” Walker’s lengthy, heartfelt solo was greeted with loud appreciative cheers.  His strong vocals only further mesmerized the fans.

“I Got Eyes Like A Cat,” written by one of Walker’s close friends, started with a Texas style boogie as JLW plucked the notes; he then produced a uniquely fast-fingered solo, proving that this artist imitates no one and has refined his own style. Walker is a talent that must be seen and heard live to fully appreciate.

The CD’s title track, “Hellfire,” kicked off with JLW’s stinging notes as he sang “Hellfire that’s my curse,” a song about having an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  He walked over to his amp, aiming his guitar towards it to get some Hendrix-like distortion as the rhythm section pummeled away behind him and Murali got down on his axe, too.  Just before the song closed, JLW removed his guitar and bounced it onto the stage for an extra sound effect. Take that, devil!

The guitarist switched gears for a more laid back number, an Earl Hooker cover with more impressive slide work. JLW didn’t hold back for long, as he a built up into a volley of notes and then hit us with some nimble string pulling  followed by rapid fire strumming as the band simply smoked behind him. In other words, JLW started the song in a traditional blues style and then took the blues into the 21st century, or perhaps another planet, in a matter of moments. Seeing Joe Louis Walker live is believing.

As much as we hated to leave Joe’s thrilling show, we didn’t want to completely miss Johnny Rawls on the Mississippi Stage.


Johnny Rawls on the Mississippi Stage

Johnny Rawls by Jennifer
photo: Jennifer Noble

Back at the Chicago Blues Fest for the third time, Johnny Rawls set the tone for the Mississippi stage, which became the place to hear the “blue-est” blues performers with their sexy, funny, risqué lyrics and comedic schtick.

As we approached the stage, we could hear female singer Destini Rawls (Johnny’s daughter) finishing her rousing rendition of the Staples Singers classic “I’ll Take You There” to an appreciative crowd. Next, up the nattily attired Mr. Rawls performed “an autobiographical song” as he sang:  “I’m a Mississippi boy, I’ve got mud on my shoes.”   An exceptional singer who can get down home and gritty with the blues or croon smooth and soulful R&B, Rawls’ voice soared and roared as he sang: “for your love, I’d walk a country mile.”

The ladies in the crowd seemed to love it and he asked them if they liked country boys or preferred city men?  It wasn’t clear which type the women liked best, but they loved it when Rawls sang the part of the country boy who could really “chop their wood” along with other rural double entendres. He followed with a guitar solo that went from Chuck Berry style to chicken-pickin’ and then a powerful string-bending blast.  Rawls asked the ladies to call out his name (“no men allowed”) as he strolled the stage, taking it all in and flirting with the ladies in the photo pit. Rawls introduced the band, took one more scorching guitar solo and exited.

The crowd screamed for more and he returned for a fun Southern soul number about a lady named “Lucy” who “liked to get juicy” and do other things on the dance floor with certain parts of her body, which we will not go into detail about here. He did, however, get the crowd dancing, smiling and singing along for the “Push, Pull” dance.


Big James & the Chicago Playboys on the Front Porch Stage

Big James by Jennifer
photo: Jennifer Noble

We ran over to the catch the end of Big James’ set. It was nice to see that the trombonist/singer/bandleader had lost a good deal of weight; James was looking good and sounding fantastic. He and the Chicago Playboys got the fans shakin’ booties to the funky “I’m on My Grind”, followed by the equally rhythmic, “These Blues Is All I Got”.

James picked up his ‘bone to solo, and then duetted with trumpet player Charles Pryor. Although there were only two horns on stage, they managed to sound like an entire horn section, as the band wrapped it up for an adoring crowd.


We ran over to the  Windy City Blues Society tent stage in time to catch the final number, a riveting version of “Rocket 88” that really rocked the fans by Rob Stone (vocals & harp), Mark Wydra (guitar), Joel Paterson (bass), Ariyo (keys) and other players.

Then it was time for the Petrillo Music Shell for a celebration of Lightnin’ Hopkins, featuring a Lone Star lineup of Texans paying tribute to their native legend.


Petrillo Music Shell:  A Centennial Celebration of Lightnin’ Hopkins

Rev. K.M. Williams

Rev. K.M. Williams & Jeff Stone by Dianne
Jeff Stone (left) & Rev. Williams/ photo: Dianne Dunklau

When we arrived, Rev. K.M. Williams was singing and playing the classic “One Kind Favor,” as he sat to the front of the stage; seated next to him were Jeff Stone on harmonica and two female singers. Behind them was drummer/ percussionist, Washboard Jackson, who was beating out primal trance-like rhythms to accompany the good Reverand on haunting Hopkins’ numbers like “Bring me My Shotgun.”  The Texas guitarist skillfully demonstrated his rural, early blues style, while the ladies hummed, moaned and harmonized along, much to the crowd’s delight. Jackson got the audience’s attention with his washboard solos, played with sharply pointed, sinister looking finger picks.


Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown

Jewel Brown & Milton Hopkins by Dianne
photo: Dianne Dunklau

Guitarist/singer/bandleader Milton Hopkins, who played with stars like Little Richard, Johnny Ace, B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton to name just a few, also happens to be Lightnin’s cousin (with whom he played only once).

Milton’s style is closer to his musical hero Gatemouth Brown, than to his cousin’s.  The guitarist -- backed by a large swingin’ band comprised of sax, trumpet, second guitar, grand piano, organ, bass and drums --  played several rousing instrumentals before bringing on singer  Jewel Brown.

Dressed in a dark purple outfit, which matched Milton’s suit, Jewel sang seated by the front of the stage while Milton played behind her. “Have you heard about Jerry, the workin’ man’s friend?” she asked the audience in song, as the drummer’s tom toms thundered across Grant Park and Jewel wailed. The crowd responded with mighty cheers of approval. A rumba beat introduced the next number as Jewel coquettishly sang “Daddy, daddy, do.” 

Milton and the band joyfully backed Jewel on numbers that ranged from low down blues to jump blues as Jewel engaged the audience with her versatile, stylish vocals. After singing “All right, well OK, you win, I’m in love with you,” Jewel jumped from her chair and exited the stage to huge applause.  The band simply smoked on the closing number, whipping the crowd into frenzied cheers and applause while they demanded an encore. And they got it, as Milton and his ace band returned for a Chicago blues style jam, followed by an instrumental version of “Dock of the Bay.”  It was a breathtaking set with more to come from another tall Texan.

Texas Johnny Brown

Texas Johnny Brown by Jenn
photo: Jennifer Noble

Although he’s an octogenarian, there’s just no slowing down the pride of Houston, who began his career in the 1940s backing Amos Milburn both on stage and in the studio. He also played on Ruth Brown’s early recordings, toured with Bobby “Blue” Bland and wrote hit songs for Junior Parker, to name just a few of his many accomplishments.

Brown came on stage while reeling off some incendiary licks, and his band kicked in for an opening instrumental number that got everyone’s attention.  Brown’s voice was powerful for the next song, a swinging blues number. He followed with a slow blues “There Goes The Blues” featuring an emotional guitar solo that drew cheers.

Brown’s very tight band – keyboards, organ, bass and drums – launched into an upbeat song, “I Just Can’t Do It” that featured a fine organ solo. The next number was a soulful ballad that also included a gospel-inspired organ solo and Brown’s guitar solo in which he ran his fingers up and down the neck, displaying his virtuosic skills. The number just oozed with soul and emotion, eliciting much appreciation from the crowd.

The guitarist sat down for “Key to the Highway” on which he played a B.B. King style string bending solo, but changed it up to make the blues classic his own, again playing lyrical and melodic lines while truly making the guitar speak. It was lovely to hear and behold.

A jazzy organ solo picked up the pace, as Brown played cascading notes and the band kept on playing with frequent shifts in tempo. The skilled guitarist led them on a long instrumental that was swinging and expansive, covering the styles of T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown and B.B. King.

The final number started with a slightly reggae beat and then shifted back into a Texas boogie blues that blew the crowd away.

And so ended the first night of the fest, on an outstanding note, thanks to the talented Texans in all their glory.

Stay tuned for Day 2 and 3 of the Chicago Blues Fest 2012.


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