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LIVE REVIEW -- Chicago Blues Fest 2013


June 6 - 9

Grant Park, Chicago, IL

By Linda Cain

Photos: Jennifer Noble and Dianne Bruce Dunklau

(except where noted)

To see  more photos of the fest, visit our Facebook page

Quinn Sullivan, Shemekia Copeland, Arthur Neilson
L to R: Quinn Sullivan, Arthur Neilson, Shemekia Copeland
photo: Dianne Dunklau

The 30th Annual Chicago Blues Fest had a few welcome surprises up its sleeve this year. A free evening concert to kick off the fest on Thursday, June 9 was held in Millennium Park at the beautiful new Pritzker Pavilion starring Shemekia Copeland with Quinn Sullivan, Jamiah on Fire & The Red Machine and Fernando Jones’ Blues Kids of America.

The other surprise was the relocation of the Crossroads Stage which was traditionally located at the far east end of Jackson Drive. This year the stage was set up directly south of Jackson in a shady grove of trees, closer to Buckingham Fountain and in line with the Mississippi stage.

The move, no doubt, was prompted by last year’s heat wave. We recall seeing Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials and Joe Louis Walker play late afternoon sets when the sun was high in the West and blazing directly on them, frying them as they played their hearts out to thousands of roasting fans in 90 degree heat. Chicago doesn’t usually get this type of heat in early June, but with climate change it could be a sign of the future.

Many blues fans loved the new tree-lined location and parked their blankets near it for most of the fest. Others felt it was too chilly for them in the perpetual shade to stay for long. One problem with the stage located under a canopy of trees is the lighting. The stage backdrop was an opaque scrim which allowed light from the east off the lake to backlight the performers. The only thing the audience could see was the dark silhouettes of the musicians. You would never have seen singer Mike Avery’s good looks and purple shirt unless you walked right up to the stage. The photographers found this stage a challenge to shoot.  The problem could easily be solved next year by installing some stage lighting and using a solid backdrop.

And the third welcome surprise was the weather. Although storms were predicted for nearly the entire weekend, there wasn’t a drop of rain in Grant Park. The weather was pleasant and mild, neither too hot nor too cold. You only needed a light jacket at night.

The theme of this year’s fest was “Rollin’ Up The River” with acts that celebrated the journey of the blues as it traveled up the mighty Mississippi, north to Chicago. The music on the Petrillo stage at night reflected the voyage, with stops in Louisiana, Mississippi and Memphis, TN.

Friday, June 7 – Petrillo Stage

Earnest  “Guitar” Roy

Earnest Guitar Roy
photo: Jennifer Noble

Earnest “Guitar” Roy brought with him all the flavors of the blues – from rural Delta to Mississippi juke joint, Memphis and Chicago styles. Earnest hails from Clarksdale, MS and was mentored by Albert King.  The audience appreciated and applauded his skilled guitar playing and personable stage presence. His band included an organ player who added some nice spice to Earnest’s tasty gumbo of blues.

Irma Thomas

Irma Thomas
photo: Jennifer Noble

Irma Thomas, a.k.a. The Soul Queen of New Orleans, showed us why she is still the regal lady of Louisiana with a smooth set of R&B, soul, blues, funk, Mardi Gras music  and heartfelt ballads. The golden-voiced singer of hits like “Time Is On My Side” (which she did not perform) was backed by a sizzling band that included congas, two horns (trumpet and sax), guitar, keyboard, bass and drums. She opened with a couple romantic ballads “I Want To Hold You To Your Promise” and “For The Rest of My Life.”

The upbeat, hip-shakin’ rhythms of “You Want Love, You Gotta Bring It With You” with its incessant funky beat got everyone in a dancing mood. Irma got down with the blues and belted out “You Can Have My Husband” and gave “Down Home Blues” a sexy touch. “I’m A Hip Shakin’ Mama” was a vaudeville era blues song, that featured a 1920s style trumpet solo.

The crowd really dug her blues set which segued into a New Orleans party. As soon as the audience heard those irresistible second line rhythms, Irma didn’t even have to tell them to raise their hankies, as they were already waving white napkins in the air. The band played  a medley of “Iko Iko” and “Hey Pockey Way”. Soon the crowd was a sea of white napkins as folks sang and boogied along to the beat.

Then it was time for slow dancing as Irma sang her signature soul ballad “It’s Raining” as the horn section’s notes cascaded like rain drops. Her majestic voice, packed with emotion, rang out across Grant Park. Irma crooned two more classic R&B songs released on 45s: “I Can’t Break Away,” and “Let It Be Me.” Her voice soared on the dramatic ending and the fans gave her a standing ovation.

The band treated us to a funky dance number before Irma left the stage as the fans cheered for more. She returned, holding hands with her hubby Emil Johnson. The singer dedicated her encore to her loyal fans who supported her through the decades. Bob Dylan’s somewhat sappy ballad “Forever Young”  started slowly but built to a crescendo as Irma topped it off with a wail and sent the last notes sailing into the night.

Bobby Rush

Bobby Rush
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and supreme showman, Bobby Rush hails from Louisiana and Mississippi, but spent some time living in Chicago. He’s back down in Mississippi now. When it comes to performing, Bobby Rush wears two hats.

            We have seen the serious bluesman side of Rush, where he sits down on a stool to play guitar and blow harp on some authentic Delta blues. We also have seen the other Bobby Rush, who is a bawdy chitlin’ circuit soul-blues man extraordinaire.  Which Bobby would it be tonight, we wondered? Or would he serve up a little of both?

You knew what was coming as soon as he hit the stage, followed by two flamboyant, big booty women.  Dressed in a white spangled suit, Rush commanded the stage from the first note, backed by his super polished band, which consisted of four guitarists, keyboards, bass and drums.

 He kicked off with the funk of “So Fine” as the ladies jiggled all of the junk in their considerable trunks. No doubt the photographers needed to switch to wide angle lenses to take it all in.  Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” was next, done up in a funky soul style.

The well-endowed ladies, Miss Lovely and Miss Keela, would exit the stage after a song or two, only to return wearing incredulously tighter, flashier outfits.  They were a very visible and fun part of the act but even their wiggling derrieres, that shook like Jello, couldn’t detract from the charismatic star of the show. Rush’s energy and talent belies his senior status.

Rush randomly blew his harmonica when the feeling moved him. At one point he stopped the band to blow harp a cappella, which was nice moment.  After the band kicked in with a song that resembled “Down Home Blues,” but with different lyrics, Rush felt compelled to tell us about his big bootied 319 pound lady back home.  He displayed two pairs of undies the size of a small tent to illustrate her girth. (You had to be there).

It was all about music after that, as Rush and the band got folks dancing to a fast and funky tune, followed by a slow blues ballad featuring a heartfelt harp solo. He and the band moved through a medley of familiar blues tunes, but the lyrics often strayed from the original.  Rush put his own manly spin on Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” with its stop time rhythms, belting out the lyrics in his deep, powerful voice.  He clearly enjoyed singing the salacious double entendre song “Catfish Fishing.”

He introduced “I’ve Got A Problem” as a song about his wife and two girlfriends.  Sounds like he’s got at least three problems!  Rush closed with another problem song – the catchy danceable tune, “Short Money,” about financial woes.

Saturday, June 8 – Petrillo Stage

Ronnie Baker Brooks

 Ronnie Baker Brooks
photo: Marilyn Stringer

Ronnie Baker Brooks is no stranger to the Blue Fest Petrillo Stage. He has backed up his iconic dad, Lonnie Brooks on several occasions. Like his father, talented Ronnie is a triple threat: singer/songwriter/guitarist. And add to that: outstanding showman and bandleader.

This was Ronnie’s debut as a headliner on the big stage and he was out to make an impression. RBB and his powerful rhythm section (Carlton Armstrong and C.J. Tucker) wasted no time in whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Father Lonnie and brother Wayne sat on chairs in the wings taking in Ronnie’s outstanding performance, smiling huge grins and rockin’ to the beat. Even a couple of Chicago cops couldn’t help but stop and watch some of Ronnie’s show, nodding in approval.

Ronnie’s version of “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” included getting the crowd to sing along; they cheered his impersonations of John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. The power trio kicked into high gear to close the song and the crowd went nuts, giving them a standing ovation.

Ronnie introduced his original song about romance gone wrong, “Stuck on Stupid,” and the fans hung onto his every word. The skilled guitarist played a monstrous solo that continued to build and build; as he approached the front of the stage, the fans screamed in delight.

“I love you Chicago,” Ronnie thanked them, as he launched into the catchy original “Take Me Witcha,” that had the audience dancing and singing along.

Ronnie called his Dad on stage to help take us back to Chicago Fest 1980, when the Lonnie Brooks Band played their indelible, revved up version of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Lonnie stood by the front of the stage, getting the fans to sing along to this shorter version of the song, and then waved and left, leaving the finale to his son. Ronnie finished it up with a John Lee Hooker style boogie as the fans cheered for more.

Otis Clay and the Platinum Band featuring Uvee Hayes

Otis Clay & Uvee Hayes
photo: Jennifer Noble

Now it was time for the Memphis portion of Saturday night’s show to begin.

Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis… the list goes on, of the master soul singers who have left us.  Thankfully Otis Clay is still here; he’s one of the greats, an American treasure, who is celebrating his 52nd year in the music business and still going strong.  At age 70, he’s in fine shape both physically and vocally.  Not only does Otis move vigorously on stage, but he can really work out vocally, too. Otis possesses that rare, emotion-packed voice can move you to tears or leave you grinning.

Known for his gritty, powerful and gospel-infused vocals -- not to mention charisma and showmanship -- in both sacred and secular fields of music, Clay brought Memphis soul, Chicago R&B and contemporary gospel to the Blues Fest stage.

The soul man was backed by his versatile, fine and funky band -- drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, grand piano, four-piece horn section and his three elegant female backup singers. Clay’s club shows are usually long marathons, but since he had a special guest he didn’t put on his usual lengthy show.

Clay opened his set with several smooth romantic soul songs. His band’s arrangements sounded lush and silky and the ladies’ voices soared behind him. Then it was time for some gritty Memphis gospel soul with Clay’s Grammy nominated cover of “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.”

It was back to danceable, Memphis R&B with the classic “Nickel and a Nail” which featured an otherworldly guitar solo from Hollywood Scott, on his B&W polka dot Fender, as Otis and the band danced in unison.

Otis reminisced about meeting Ronnie Baker Brooks when he was born; he also gave props to his departed soul brothers Tyrone Davis and Artie “Blues Boy” White.

Clay introduced his special guest from St. Louis, MO, Miss  Uvee Hayes. They clearly had a great time as they sang a duet, “Steal Away To Hide Away,” a song they recorded together from Euvee’s True Confessions CD from 2011.

Clay left the stage for Euvee, who commanded the crowd with her feisty moves and powerful, beautiful voice. Even Billy Boy Arnold was heard to remark: “She’s great!” Euvee performed a couple soul songs that got the crowd cheering.

 Clay returned to take us back to Memphis with a medley that ended with “Respect Yourself,” the Staple Singers’ hit.  The master showman finished the song and the show by suddenly stopping and holding still, like a frozen statue, for quite some time while the audience hooted.

The Memphis Soul Revue starring The Bar-Kays with special guests Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice

Sir Mack Rice
Sir Mack Rice
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

The Bar-Kays wasted no time in bringing out the legendary songwriter and performer Sir Mack Rice who got the audience moving with a couple numbers, including his most famous song “Mustang Sally.” Naturally his version sounded nothing like the many bar bands you’ve heard covering this done-to-death hit.  For his final number, Sir Mack got the audience singing along for “634-5789” as the Bar-Kays thumped the Memphis beat.

Eddie Floyd charged onto the stage and took command as he belted out “Knock On Wood,” with its famous horn intro and bouncy beat. Floyd got the crowd into clapping and singing along.

 It was about then that we scanned the stage looking for the horn section, only to realize that there was none!  Nevertheless, the keyboard player managed to duplicate the horn parts on synthesizer well enough to not detract from the songs.

Eddie Floyd
Eddie Floyd
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Floyd exited as quickly as he entered. And the Bar-Kays began their own set, kicked off by a funky bass solo. A male singer entered, and threw out a flame, so you knew it was going to be a hot show!  The band hit us with the funk of “Sex-o-matic” that got booties shakin’. It was a hit that no doubt influenced early Prince & the New Power Generation; Morris Day & The Time certainly copped dance moves from these cats.

It was hard to see the entire lineup, since the Petrillo set up blocked the view of patrons on the left side of the stage with an ill-placed stack of speakers. But it appeared that The Bar-Kay band consisted of bass, guitar, drums, keyboards and two male backup singers.

The band moved back in time to the ‘60s for Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming,” and “Soul Man.”  The Bar-Kays then performed their own hit from 1966, “Soul Finger,” which seemed a shame to be played without the trademark power horn section.

Nevertheless this was a dance party to remember!

A stepper’s song, “Do What The Old Folks Do,” was a nostalgic treat for Chicagoans especially since it was a #1 hit here.

Larry Dodson
Larry Dodson
photo: Jennifer Noble

Larry Dodson came out to pay tribute to Otis Redding with “Can’t Turn You Loose.” He tore up the stage with his Otis like moves and soul singing power.  The first singer, James Alexander,  returned to sing Otis’ cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Then Dodson came back for “I’ve Been Lovin’ You A Little Too Long” as he dropped to his knees and put his whole body into this torch song.

            The Bar-Kays went back to the music that inspired Morris Day with the synth-funk of “Freak Show”.

Larry Dodson played a bit of Sly and the Family Stone on guitar, as the band sang a couple “boom chaka lockas” before taking a bow and exiting. The crowd screamed for more and the band returned for its lush finale of the movie classic “Son of Shaft”.

Sunday, June 9 – Petrillo Stage

Shirley Johnson

Shirley Johnson
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Shirley Johnson has been a fixture on the Chicago blues scene since she moved here in 1983 from Virginia, where she grew up singing gospel music.  She came here to sing the blues and has enjoyed a long running residency at Blue Chicago.  She has recorded two successful CDs for Delmark Records, Killer Diller and Blues Attack.

Shirley possesses a singular, smoky, versatile and expressive voice that can project the pain and sorrow of sad blues songs or she can be feisty as heck and tell off that no good man in song.  Although we have seen Shirley many times over the years, we were sidetracked and didn’t get to over to the Petrillo Stage to catch much of her show. By the time we got to the Petrillo stage, Shirley had the crowd spell bound as she belted out her finale of Ray Charles’  “Unchain My Heart,”  giving it her own gospel infused flavor.

Jimmy Johnson Band

Jimmy Johnson
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

It is almost impossible to believe that Jimmy Johnson is 84 years old. His emotion-packed high tenor voice still soars and his jazzy, note-scaling string bending is as nimble as ever. His appearance was part of the fest’s tribute to Delmark Records, although the artist has been on a number of labels over the years.

            The veteran blues and soul artist (brother to Syl Johnson) was backed by an impressive five-piece band that included keyboardist Roosevelt Purifoy and guitarist Mike Wheeler.

Jimmy opened with “Born Under A Bad Sign,” giving his own touch to the Albert King classic. For “Reconsider Me” he instructed Mike Wheeler to solo, and the guitarist (also a Delmark artist) obliged, to cheers. After each song, Jimmy cleverly stroked his guitar to make it sound like it was saying, “Thank you, thank you!”

“You wanna hear some real blues or what?” he asked the crowd, which roared its approval. He played Albert Collins’  “Cold Cold Feeling” with great expression and sang with sorrowful emotion.  Both Jimmy and Mike Wheeler delivered intense solos.

The blues elder changed the mood to an uptempo original with a reggae/calypso feel that got people dancing. Then it was back to the downhearted blues with his plaintive version of Fenton Robinson’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is” featuring Roosevelt’s keyboard styling.  The band closed with Junior Wells’ “Little By Little” done up Johnson style.

Chicago Blues: Old School, New Millennium

James Cotton, John Primer, Billy Branch, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Lil’ Ed Williams, Deitra Farr, Demetria Taylor, Matt Skoller, Billy Flynn, Johnny Iguana, Felton Crews, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith

Billy Branch, James Cotton, Deitra Farr, Matt Skoller, Felton Crews
L to R: Billy Branch, James Cotton, Felton Crews, Deitra Farr, Matthew Skoller
photo: Jennifer Noble

The last act on the big stage for the final night of Blues Fest was a true feast for blues fans, starring hometown heroes of different generations performing real deal Chicago style blues.

The backup band featured some of Chicago’s most stellar sidemen: Billy Flynn (guitar), Johnny Iguana (keyboards), Felton Crews (bass), Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith (drums), and emcee/ harp blower extraordinaire Matt Skoller.  Do a search for any of these cats and their collective resumes are enough to fill a blues history book. The band played a short instrumental and then brought out a young daughter of the blues.

demetria taylor & matt skoller
Demetria Taylor & Matthew Skoller
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Demetria Taylor, daughter of the late blues guitar great Eddie Taylor, prowled, growled and belted out “I Smell Trouble,” in much the way her mentor Koko Taylor taught her. The feisty blues woman covered her dad’s signature tune, “Bad Boy”, but she changed it to “Bad Girl,” and had us believing that she was, indeed, a bit naughty.

Next up, Lil’ Ed stormed out on stage ripping off some killer slide guitar riffs and getting the boogie started with his West Side version of Ray Charles’ “Do The Mess Around.” Ed moved about the stage and mugged for the cameras. The fezz-hatted guitarist then slipped into some slow blues for “Things Are So Slow,” from one of his recent Alligator CDs, a song about unemployment and the economy that rings true to these times. Ed Williams spun off some face melting solos on this one that got the fans cheering.

Eddy Clearwater
Eddy Clearwater
photo: Jennifer Noble

 Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, looking resplendent in a colorful outfit, roared out his tell-off song, “Damn Good Leavin’ Alone,” as the crowd applauded.  His playful Chuck Berry styled song “Too Old To Get Married, Too Young To Be Buried,” got the audience moving and smiling along to the good humored lyrics.  Johnny Iguana handily fit right into the Johnnie Johnson role on piano, as Eddy rocked out on guitar.

Up in the air above the crowd, a candle-lit Japanese lantern flew dreamily in the evening sky. It was, perhaps, a good omen to keep the rain away.

Songstress Deitra Farr pulled out a variety of vocal styles from her bag of music.  First she caressed a smooth, soulful love song, with her smoky flavored, passionate pipes that quickly won over the crowd. She closed with the deep blues of “Black Night” that truly aimed straight for the heart, as she sang from the depths of her soul. Deitra called on friends Skoller and Flynn to solo on harp and guitar which added a special touch to the song.

Blues harp hero Billy Branch paid tribute to Junior Wells with “Hoodoo Man Blues” and also Little Walter for his sizzling, but brief, set featuring plenty of instrumental segments and  jumpin’ solos from his skilled bandmates.

John Primer
John Primer
photo: Jennifer Noble

Matt Skoller dedicated the show to the recently departed blues giant Magic Slim as he introduced John Primer, Slim’s former guitarist.  Primer also served as sideman to Muddy Waters and he opened his set with some stinging, Muddy style notes, as Skoller wailed away on harp. Now the stage was set for the next star, another former Muddy bandmate, the one and only James Cotton.

Mr. Superharp strolled out on stage, blowing harp as he moved to take his chair, front and center. He was flanked by Primer, who was joined on guitar by Cotton’s ace guitarist Tom Holland.  As Cotton no longer sings, Primer took on vocal duties for “It’s Hard Sometimes,” and  “James Cotton Was There” (a biographical song from the namesake’s new Alligator CD  Cottonmouth Man). Cotton blew a seemingly breathless solo, to cheers from the fans, as the photographers crowded to the foot of the stage to shoot this harmonica legend who is still going strong at age 78.  The band moved into a lively instrumental blues boogie jam, as Matt Skoller moved about the stage to organize the finale.

Lil Ed, James Cotton, Deitra Farr
Lil' Ed Williams, James Cotton, Deitra Farr
photo: Jennifer Noble

One by one, the Chicago blues stars came back out on stage: Deitra, Demetria, Lil’ Ed, Billy Branch and Eddy “The Chief”. They surrounded James Cotton for the last number, Muddy Waters’ “The Blues Had A Baby (And They Named The Baby Rock and Roll).”

Cotton played his indelible harmonica riff that he recorded and played so often with Muddy, as the artists took turns singing a verse, all looking fondly and nodding at James as they belted it out. Cotton signaled the band and they quieted, as he let loose one of his squealing , reed ripping solos to close out the night.

Yes , the blues rolled up the river and landed in the Windy City -- where it became the shot heard round the world -- influencing early rock’n’roll, the British Invasion on up to today’s rap and hip hop. Chicago Blues Fest 2013 couldn’t have enjoyed a better finale than this!

Daytime Fest Highlights

Windy City Blues Society Stage

Tweed Funk/ Band Challenge

The WCBS street stage, for the fourth year in a row, hosted a slew of outstanding acts for the three-day long weekend.  Sam Lay with Bob Riedy and Bob Corritore, Smiley Tillmon Band with Billy Flynn & Special Guests, Harry Garner’s Baker’s Dozen Harp Blowout, Shake ‘Em On Down, Kevin Purcell & the Nightburners and many other top acts performed.

At any given time, the small stage (under a modest tent at street level on Columbus Drive) was surrounded by huge crowds, including a bevy of blues dancing couples who hoofed it over to whatever act seemed to be playing the hottest dance music.  The collective of about two dozen young folks danced by the WCBS stage frequently, a hearty endorsement indeed.

The dancers were by another stage for Tweed Funk’s performance later on Sunday and we were able to get a great spot to catch this exciting six-piece blues band from Wisconsin, featuring guitar, sax, trumpet, bass and drums. Fronted by soulful blues singer Joseph “Smokey” Holman, who won a WAMI this year for Best Male Vocalist, the band played their own horn-fueled versions of classics like “Knock On Wood” and originals like “My Baby’s Fine Like The Finest Wine”.  Originally from Chicago, Smokey had friends and family in the crowd, and he made a point to leave the tent to shake hands and exchange hugs with them and random audience members all while singing and not missing a beat. Tweed Funk carefully blended soul, blues and R&B with a touch of jazz on the solos from the horn men and the bass player, while guitarist/ bandleader JD Optekar played tasteful blues licks or rollicking rhythms.

On Sunday June 9, five bands competed before judges for Round 1 of the Blues Band Challenge contest. The winner was Ryan Mumby & The 100 Year Rain from Glen Ellyn. The Marty “Big Dog” Mercer Band came in a close second.  The band competition will continue through the end of the year with the winner earning a trip to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Challenge in winter 2014.

Blues Women

Grana’ Louise

Sunday, Crossroads Stage

Grana' Louise
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

As we approached the relocated Crossroads stage on Sunday,  we saw the gang of blues dancers lined up in the walkway doing their thing to the real deal blues sounds of the mighty Grana’ Louise and her band Troublemaker. Thankfully there was plenty of room by this stage.

Chicago blues club veteran Grana’ stomped across the stage in her bare feet, belting out “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” followed by The Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’”  on which she growled and howled,  prompting some in the crowd to howl back.

Backed by a four-piece band that included outstanding guitar greats Tom Holland and Carlos Showers, whose solos drew cheers throughout the set, Grana’ launched into her updated version of the classic “Stagger Lee”. Her dramatic body language and vocal finesse absolutely brought the old song to life and drew the audience into this murderous saga. Grana’s background in acting was put to good use throughout her set.

Grana’ Louise  loves to sing story songs and whatever tale she tells in song, you believe her!  Her clever covers of Denise LaSalle’s “Learning How To Cheat On You,” and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s “Back Door” had the fans riveted and laughing.

Grana’ spoke of the encouragement she received from her late friend Koko Taylor and proceeded to blow everyone away with her version on “I’m A Woman,” on which she both purred and shouted Koko’s signature tune. The Queen of the Blues would have been delighted.

Holle Thee Maxwell

Saturday, Front Porch Stage

Holle Thee Maxwell
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Holle Thee Maxwell’s biography and career could fill a book, but she is best known for singing with Ike Turner after Tina left. Fans by the Front Porch stage on Saturday had to wait patiently for the diva Holle to make her appearance. Thankfully, we were treated to a 20-minute warm up set by an excellent six-piece band led by guitarist Maurice John Vaughn. Keyboardist Bruce Thompson delighted the fans by singing  “Ain’t No Sunshine.”  Vaughn’s original “Everything I Do, It Got To Be Funky had the crowd dancing.

Holle made her entrance while clapping and dancing as her outsized personality instantly won the fans over.  She belted a jazzy, New Orleans version of Muddy’s “I’m Ready,” featuring  trombone player B.J. Emory.  She donned a huge white flower in her hair for her Billie Holiday tribute  on “God Bless The Child.”  Her smooth step dancing number, “Only When Your Lonely,” had Holle giving dance lessons.

Holle’s blues songs were the crowd’s favorites and they really loved her take on “Evil Gal Blues” from the 1920s as she nastily belted out her intentions to do the men wrong. She closed with a unique version of “Sweet Home Chicago” on which she sounded sultry and beckoning; she also employed a bit of vocal scatting and changed the lyrics to suit her style.

Vickie Baker

Sunday, Mississippi Juke Joint Stage

Vickie Baker
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

From gospel to soul to down and dirty R&B and blues, this Louisiana/ Mississippi gal has been singing and entertaining for most of her life. Backed by three female singers – all family members who provided soaring harmonies -- and a four-piece band that included her brother on keyboards, Vickie treated the crowd to a nice variety of music. From double entendre old school soul with advice for the ladies (“drop that zero, get yourself a hero”) to a “nasty blues song” in the style of her pal Bobby Rush, Vickie kept the fans at the Mississippi stage thoroughly entertained and smiling. “They call me The Bad Girl of the Blues,” she quipped.  Her signature song, “Love Strike,” advocated boycotting certain pleasures until her man treats her right.

Talent certainly runs in the family and her brother got a turn to display his fine, soulful vocals on “50/50 Love.” Vickie’s amazing voice soared across Columbus Drive for a cover of “Midnight Train to Georgia” that got the crowd revved up.


Three Guitar Heroes, a Soul Man and a Tribute

Guitar Heroes

We were able to catch the last couple of songs by two outstanding blues guitarists on the Front Porch stage as they finished their sets.

On Saturday it was a true homecoming for Khalif Wailing Walter who moved to Germany several years ago. Blues fans may remember him playing with his uncle Carl Weathersby and in Lonnie Brooks’ Band.  Khalif played to a packed park that cheered him on as he played brilliant solos that kept gathering steam and charged full speed ahead.  Backed by bassist Wendy Hayes, drummer B.J. and keyboardist Roosevelt Purifoy, Khalif and the band finished with a dramatic instrumental that left the crowd cheering for more.

Similarly, there was a huge crowd by the Front Porch stage for Larry McCray; clearly they were enthralled by this guitar great from Michigan, who is a frequent performer at Chicago blues clubs.  Larry and his brothers have been working together since they were kids; they played together with a kinesis and dynamic that only siblings can share. Larry skillfully wove together a myriad of guitar techniques, styles and sounds during the closing instrumental.  He was truly causing jaws to drop as the fans bopped along in unison with every beat from the driving rhythm section.

Jarekus Singleton
Jarkeus Singleton
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

On Sunday, there was quite a buzz among the blues cognoscenti about young Jarekus Singleton, so we hoofed it over to the jam-packed Mississippi Stage to check him out. A former college basketball player who returned to music after a knee injury, Jarekus was absolutely compelling to watch. Keep your eyes out for him, Jarekus could well be the next Gary Clark, Jr.!!!  Everything about this handsome young performer was excellent. His vocals, his guitar playing, his original songs, his showmanship and his super tight band were all A-plus fantastic. His style of music seemed to be influenced by legends like B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan and was very tasteful.


Soul Man

Mike Avery

Saturday, Crossroads Stage

Mike Avery
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Mike Avery has the kind of remarkable voice and smooth showmanship that is guaranteed to send females to swooning. And the men like him too!  As we approached the Crossroads stage, the crowd was having a great time dancing to Mike and West Side Soul’s upbeat R&B songs. Avery and the band members have highly impressive credentials (various members worked with Janet Jackson, Quincy Jones, Tyrone Davis and Branford Marsalis, to name a few). Mike’s cousin was Magic Sam and he grew up singing blues, R&B and soul. Mike’s touching soul version of “You’ve Got A Friend” got the fans swaying and “Very Superstitious” had them jumping out of their seats to dance.

 Tribute to Magic Slim

Shawn Holt & The Teardrops

Sunday, Front Porch Stage

Shawn Holt
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

We lost the great bluesman Magic Slim last February. Since then, his son Shawn has bravely stepped in to fill his father’s legendary shoes and take charge of The Teardrops Band.  Magic Slim played an instantly recognizable style of hard-driving, rough-edged, house- rockin’ West Side Blues.  His passing marked the end of an era. Fortunately Dad passed the torch to his son, whom he educated very well in the school of blues, as evidenced by Shawn’s absolutely riveting and heartfelt performance on the Front Porch stage on Sunday.

Like his dad, Shawn Holt has a big, deep voice and sings with authority. He dedicated “Find Me A Part Time Love” to his father; Slim would have been proud of Shawn & The Teardrops’ version. The super tight four-piece band moved with precision from one song into the next. Like the original Teardrops, this band features two guitarists. Shawn’s style stays close to his Dad’s, while sometimes nodding to Stevie Ray. The second young guitarist likes to fire off multiple notes at high speed.  This version of the Teardrops put their own spin on “Rock Me Baby” and “Crosscut Saw” making both very danceable. “Mean Little Woman” had a nice shuffle beat.

Shawn brought on special guest John Primer, who had appeared on the Front Porch stage earlier to play with Czech blues artists the Michal Prokop Band. Primer recalled Shawn in his youth, who told his Dad: “Someday, I’m gonna kick John’s ass on guitar.” 

On that note, Primer and Shawn traded solos for a couple extended blues standards including “Rocks In My Pillow.”  The two guitarists were having a great time, egging each other on as the crowd cheered them heartily. One fan was heard to holler, “Yeah, John. You’re the real deal!” Indeed, the folks that packed the Front Porch park testified to the power of authentic Chicago Blues and the memory of Magic Slim!


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