Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
32nd Annual CHICAGO BLUES FESTIVAL 2015
June 12 – 14
Grant Park, Chicago, IL
By Linda Cain
photos: Jennifer Noble, Dianne Bruce Dunklau, Roman
photos: Jennifer Noble,
Dianne Bruce Dunklau, Roman Sobus
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In life, there are universal truths. Here are two of them:
· The blues is about the eternal human condition; it reflects the full range of mankind’s emotions.
· The weather forecasters lie.
Both axioms were on full display in Grant Park the weekend of the 32nd annual Chicago Blues Festival.
Those who stayed away from Chicago Blues Fest all weekend because they chose to believe the weather people’s predictions of doom and gloom missed out on a great time. The faithful who believed in blues power over the weather were treated to three days and nights of outstanding music on six stages in Grant Park. And all of it was free!
Granted, Chicagoland had plenty of stormy, rainy weather leading up to the fest weekend, thus rendering some of the lawn spots of Grant Park into a muddy swamp, especially the park surrounding the Front Porch stage. How muddy was it? There were puddles enough to attract a pair of ducks, a male and female, who nonchalantly drank from a pool of water near the sidewalk by Jackson Blvd. There were puddles big enough for a small boy to take a flying belly flop into one of them, creating a giant splash.
Yet the only time all weekend that we needed our rain gear was Saturday night towards the end of Shemekia Copeland’s set on the Petrillo Stage and into part of Buddy Guy’s headlining show. Thankfully it was a moderate rain and the temperatures were warm. Buddy’s set was delayed by about 20 minutes to make sure that no lightening was near. Plenty of people stayed to see him, and the seating area in front of the stage looked like a colorful sea of umbrellas. After all, how many chances does one get to see Buddy Guy perform for free? And perform he did, as only a showman like Buddy can. (Scroll down to read more about Buddy under Day 2- June 13th.)
DAY 1 – Friday, June 12
Petrillo Music Stage: Soul Blues
Chicago’s Zora Young looked resplendent in her long strawberry blonde locks and lacy black ensemble as she strolled back and forth across the stage, waving her fancy scarf tied to her wrist. Backed by Sir Walter Scott and the Platinum Band, featuring Hollywood Scott on his polka-dot Fender Strat, Zora showed her vocal versatility as she took on the role of soul blues mama. Fans might have been expecting her to perform in her signature classic blues style as she did when she sang with Sunnyland Slim back in the day. However, with a nine-piece soul/R&B band behind her (the same outfit that backs Otis Clay), Zora was able to strut her stuff and belt out classic songs by Ann Peebles, Etta James and Aretha Franklin, along with her own zesty originals. Zora also included a tribute to the recently departed B.B. King, “The Thrill Is Gone,” done in an upbeat R&B version.
Zora is rarely seen in local blues clubs these days, as she has a packed schedule of touring and recording in Europe, especially in France, where she has performed over 20 times.
Everybody’s favorite “Back Door Santa” looked sharp in his glittery silver suit with sequined lapels. Featured in the film documentary Muscle Shoals, about the storied Alabama hit-making recording studio headed by producer/songwriter Rick Hall, Carter belied his 79 years and put on a fun and energetic performance as a crowd of loyal fans cheered him on.
The first song didn’t exactly set the tone for the rest of the show; Carter and the band were performing in different keys! But that was resolved by the second number with the singer playing guitar and backed by keyboards, bass and drums.
Many in the crowd remembered Carter’s 1971 hit song, “Patches,” a very maudlin tale about an impoverished family; it was penned for him to sing by the previously mentioned Muscle Shoals hit maker Rick Hall and earned Carter a gold record. Despite the song’s downer subject matter, Carter sang it eloquently to applause.
Carter’s golden voice has lost little of its power, range and emotion over the decades; his vocals simply soared on “Slip Away” as the crowd cheered its approval.
Ironically, his most popular songs were too risqué for radio back in the day, but they became underground sensations nonetheless. Clarence hit us with his sexy juke box tune from 1985, “Strokin’,” and got everybody in the audience clapping and dancing.
And no, Carter didn’t sing about being the back door Santa. It was the wrong time of year for that. But he did perform a song about sneaking out a window, “One Way Out,” which he dedicated to his mentor Jimmy Reed.
Charming and humorous, Carter closed his set with a reprise of “Strokin’” that got the fans on their feet to give him a well-deserved standing ovation.
Carter, who is blind, sincerely thanked the one of the fest’s sponsors, the American Disabilities Association for helping his career.
It is a rare treat to catch Syl Johnson in a hometown appearance. His big brother Jimmy Johnson is a fixture on Chicago’s blues scene and can be seen nearly every week in a local blues venue. Syl is far more elusive, but when he gets ready to do his thing, watch out! This night was no exception to that rule, with Syl dressed to the nines in a tux, singing and playing guitar and harmonica, and backed by a huge band. His music spans the generations and has been sampled by hip hop and rap groups, sometimes not in a legal manner. Nevertheless it is evidence that his appeal is timeless. Not surprisingly, the audience that night was all ages.
Syl & Company wasted no time and kicked things off with a bang for “That’s Why I Love You So.” The band included three female backup singers (who are often seen performing with Otis Clay), and a mighty horn section -- seated to the back were countless saxophone, trombone and trumpet players. Noted Chicago drummer Willie “The Touch” Hayes provided the backbeat and anchored the whole soulful affair. The stage was so crowded it was hard to count how many people were up there. Needless to say, there was a big fat sound to back this iconic soul/blues singer; Syl’s voice rose to the challenge.
From danceable Memphis soul on “Sock It To Me Baby” and “Take Me To The River,” to slow blues on “Anyway The Wind Blows” and ‘60s go-go boot pop music on “Monkey Time” Syl thoroughly entertained the fans and had them dancing from the get-go on a foggy, chilly Friday night in the Windy City.
DAY 1 – Friday, June 13
Petrillo Music Stage: Hometown Heroes & a Heroine
By the time we made it to the Petrillo Stage, after a couple songs into his set, Toronzo Cannon had the massive crowd in the palm of his hand! His stellar showmanship, powerful vocals and impressive guitar skills, along with his captivating original songs and charisma, combined to win over every person in the audience. This is one exciting performer who knows how to pull out all the stops and pump up an audience!
Dressed in a fashionably “retro” white Nehru jacket, Toronzo performed leaps in the air and other moves. His flair for theatrics, however, was supported by solid musicianship and songs, as he played all originals from his two, critically acclaimed Delmark CDs, Leaving Mood and John the Conquer Root. The guitarist demonstrated his versatility, performing an eclectic 45-minute set that included a traditional Chicago style blues shuffle (“Pretty Eyed Woman: She’s Too Much”), Memphis-style old school soul (“Cold World”) and fast-paced boogie (“Sweet, Sweet, Sweet”). He even swapped out his Flying V guitar from the early part of the show to use a Gibson Es335 to close the set.
As he traded guitars, Toronzo announced that he was swapping record labels; he told the crowd that he had just signed with Alligator Records and received huge congratulatory applause in response. He also premiered a new rockin’ blues song, “Walk It Off,” which will appear on his new Alligator CD, slated for release in early 2016.
For the next number, T.C. prowled the stage as veteran keyboardist Ronnie Hicks performed a sparkling solo. Toronzo he came off the stage playing guitar, made his way through the VIP section and walked through the audience, that delighted in taking photos, while his ace band played on.
Back on stage, the showman played a guitar solo with his teeth while the crowd cheered him on. As the guitarist ended his last number, “Sweet, Sweet, Sweet,” the fans rose in unison to give him a huge standing ovation. After only a 45-minute set, the crowd did not want to let him leave!
Shemekia Copeland graciously agreed on short notice to take Taj Mahal’s spot on the Petrillo Stage, since the elder bluesman was forced to cancel due to health concerns. The award-winning young singer, the daughter of the late bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland, is no stranger to Chicago Blues Fest’s main stage. In 2011, Shemekia was coronated as the “New Queen of the Blues”, an honor bestowed upon her by mentor Koko Taylor’s daughter Cookie on Chicago Blues Fest’s Petrillo Stage. Since then she has been living up to the honor, having performed at the White House and enjoying many other career highlights.
On this occasion, it was evident that Shemekia shares three traits with Toronzo Cannon:
· The ability to work a large crowd from a festival stage
· The talent and versatility to expand the borders of the blues
· A recently signed contract with Alligator Records.
While still a teenager, Shemekia began her recording career with Alligator. After four CDs, the singer signed with the Telarc label in 2009 for two CDs. Now at age 35 she is back with Bruce Iglauer’s label and will release a new CD, Outskirts of Love, on September 11.
The new CD will, no doubt, continue her artistic quest to honor the blues of the past while refreshing it for younger audiences and taking it into the future. For her performance at Chicago Blues Fest that night, Shemekia accomplished all of the above.
The powerhouse singer banged a tambourine and kicked off her set with “Dirty Water,” a defiant tell-off song. Backed by two guitarists, bass and drums, her voice rang out over the packed Grant Park. She got the crowd clappin’ for the socially conscious but upbeat song “Lemon Pie” about the poor not getting their fare share.
Shemekia then switched gears to play a traditional slow, sad blues song, “Married To The Blues,” which built to a crescendo as the vocalist pulled out all the stops to belt out the final verse; then it was back to her quiet voice to end the tune with a dramatic flair. Lord, have mercy, this woman can sing!
The superb singer hit us with more social commentary served up gospel style on “Somebody Else’s Jesus,” followed by the haunting tale of an abused woman in “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo.” Then it was time for some “booty shakin’” with “Pie in the Sky,” a danceable, upbeat song penned by her father that featured some wailin’ slide guitar by Arthur Nielson and got the crowd singing along.
Shemekia dedicated her next song to the late Koko Taylor. She got the fans clappin’ along as the bass thumped to a loping, “Wang Dang Doodle” type of beat on “Has Anybody Seen My Man?” from her debut, Turn the Heat Up. She finished the tune with a Koko inspired wail. And then she exited the stage.
The two guitarists, Arthur Nielson and Willie Scandlyn , took over, playing a lively instrumental number. Shemekia returned to sing the spooky murder tale, “Never Going Back To Memphis” and then the gospel stomper “Big Brand New Religion.”
Just then the rain started, but Shemekia soldiered on as the umbrellas came out. She belted out her father’s poignant tale of poverty, “Ghetto Child,” singing off mic at times, keeping the soggy fans mesmerized. And then she asked her final question of the night: “It’s 2 a.m., do you know where your baby is?” Shemekia left us with a rocker to end her very satisfying and diverse set.
No matter what style of music she chooses, Shemekia injects it with the blues. Whether she applies her awesome vocals skills to a ballad or a rocker, Shemekia is first and foremost a blues singer.
The rain continued to come down and lightning in the distance was visible. So Buddy’s 8:05 p.m. show time was put on hold until the coast was clear. After about a 20 minute wait, Buddy hit the stage with a vengeance, as his stinging guitar notes called the crowd back to the Petrillo pavilion, like a pied piper. His powerful voice, heard across the park, shouted out: “You damn right I got the blues!” and a sea of umbrellas re-appeared to answer his call. Buddy gestured and shook his fists as if to defy the weather.
Buddy’s famous guitar intro to “Five Long Years” was met with cheers of recognition, as the 78-year-old bluesman simply belted out the story about an ungrateful woman who had the “nerve to put me out.” It seemed as if his guitar was on fire; he played and sang with such a passion.
The guitar hero dedicated the next number to the hardy souls who stayed out in the rain to see him and he kicked off a simmering version of the standard “Fever.” Ironically, he next played John Hiatt’s tune “Feels Like Rain,” putting his own twist on the melodic ballad that had us thinking: “rain, no duh.”
Then it was time for Buddy to pay tribute blues legends of the past. B.B. King had passed away a month prior on May 14. Buddy talked about his friendship with the blues legend and how he attended the memorial services for B.B. in Indianola, Mississippi. He then played a heartfelt version of an early hit by The King of The Blues, “Sweet Sixteen” and surely touched some souls.
He followed by playing snippets of songs with famous guitar riffs by John Lee Hooker, Cream and others. Buddy switched to acoustic guitar for Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” and got the audience singing along like the Rae-lettes from under their umbrellas.
Buddy went back to his electric guitar for the title track of his 2008 CD, Skin Deep. Normally he likes to play a “sitar/guitar” on this number, but instead he shredded on his Fender for a solo; he generously gave solos to his band guitarists, son Greg Guy and Ric Hall. Keyboard whiz Marty Sammon also was given a chance to strut his stuff during the show.
Buddy didn’t quite finish this touching message song about racial equality, when he switched gears and started talking about British blues rockers and Jimi Hendrix. He then went into a medley of guitar riffs from “Voodoo Chile” (which he played one-handed) and “Sunshine of Your Love”. He employed some showy special effects, played behind his back, and rubbed the guitar on his tushy for effect. His skilled backup players, The Damn Right Blues Band, kept up with Buddy’s antics and the crowd cheered him on.
The rain stopped just in time for Buddy to switch guitars for the final number, a funky version of “Meet Me in Chicago,” a fun ode to tourism in the Windy City from his 2013 CD, Rhythm & Blues.
Buddy mentioned earlier that he had made a promise to B.B. King, and also to Muddy Waters, to keep the blues alive. He always has acted as a mentor to young blues artists and encouraged new talent. As evidenced by the talent who shared the stage with him that night, Buddy can rest assured that the future of the blues is in good hands with artists like Shemekia and Toronzo.
DAY 3 – Sunday, June 14
Petrillo Music Stage: Celebrating Centennials
BILLY BRANCH & SONS OF THE BLUES – with EDDY “THE CHIEF” CLEARWATER & RONNIE BAKER BROOKS
It’s often impossible to make it to the Petrillo Stage for a 5 p.m. start time when there are so many other fine acts performing simultaneously. How does one tear themselves away from the Blues Heritage Orchestra Quartet with Chicago’s harmonica man extraordinaire Matthew Skoller on the Front Porch Stage when they are playing such exciting modern arrangements of old time spirituals and field hollers? And once you find a seat at a picnic table in the shady grove by the Crossroads Stage to hear blues-eyed soul/R&B singer John Nemeth captivate a rapt audience, it makes it hard to move on. Needless to say, we missed part of the first set on the Petrillo Stage. But when we arrived, the huge band onstage led by harmonica legend Billy Branch, was in full swing, tearing it up.
Billy Branch and the Sons of the Blues – keyboardist Ariyo, guitarist Dan Carelli, bassist Marvin Little, drummer Andrew “Blaze” Thomas – were joined by a wrecking crew of star backup players: The Chicago Fire Horns (Bill McFarland, Shaun Johnson, Hank Ford) plus three female backup singers known collectively as Nadima (Nanette Frank, Diane Madison, Mae Koen).
We got to see this impressive ensemble back up Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, who also was accompanied by guitar great Ronnie Baker Brooks for “A Damn Good Leavin’ Alone,” “Came Up The Hard Way” and other songs from his last Alligator CD, West Side Strut, which incidentally was produced by Ronnie. The Chief remains a robust singer/guitarist/performer at age 80.
Once Eddy and Ronnie exited, Branch reassembled his big band for a grand finale of “Blues Shock,” the title track of his critically acclaimed recent CD on Blind Pig Records. Dan Carelli started with some slide guitar and the entire ensemble kicked in to shake us out of our seats to experience our own blues shock with this tour-de-force closer.
WILLIE DIXON CENTENNIAL TRIBUTE: with Billy Branch, Keshia Dixon Nelson, Tomiko Dixon, Bobby Dixon, Freddie Dixon, Alex Dixon, Cash McCall, Sugar Blue, John Watkins & Andrew Blaze Thomas and more.
Family gatherings at the Dixon household must have been quite the musical affair, considering the amount of talented kinfolk who joined together on the Petrillo stage to pay tribute to the patriarch of their clan.
After coming down from his own exciting set, Billy Branch returned on stage to emcee, perform and orchestrate this one-of-a-kind homage to his mentor, a show that he produced. Branch proved to be the MVP of the night as he took on the task of directing so many bodies on stage. Branch’s fellow blues harp virtuoso, Sugar Blue, joined in to assist on harmonica duty.
As the band warmed up with an instrumental, a very animated Bobby Dixon (Willie’s son) kicked off on piano and vocals, with a rhumba style treatment of “Back Door Man.”
Blonde-haired Keshia Dixon Nelson, a granddaughter, was next up and she belted out “I’m Ready” with her powerful voice, singing in a style that was no doubt inspired by Koko Taylor.
A poignant moment ensued for “Spoonful”; there seated at center stage, playing his signature pinkish purple Jazzmaster guitar, was Eddie C. Campbell with wife Barbara beside him. Together they sang the Dixon song and Eddie gingerly took a solo. Two years ago, Campbell suffered a stroke while on tour in Germany. It was remarkable to see this great blues man’s will and determination to get better and be able to play music again.
Another Dixon son, bassist Freddie Dixon, sang “I Think I Got The Blues,” which featured a stellar solo from white-attired guitarist John Watkins.
Granddaughter Tomiko Dixon commanded the stage for a feisty version of “My Babe/My Baby’s Sweeter,” which included plenty of solos from the guys in the band. She worked the huge crowd and got the audience clapping and singing along.
Next up was a former session player for Chess Records who worked with luminaries like Les McCann and Minnie Riperton and, of course Willie Dixon; Cash McCall took charge for “I Just Wanna Make Love To You.” He was joined in the spotlight by Willie’s grandson Alex Dixon. McCall’s vigorous voice belted out the manly tune, made famous by Muddy Waters, and he even ad libbed on some of Dixon’s lyrics. The dynamic entertainer and guitarist got the crowd singing along on this blues classic.
“This is a celebration of one of the greatest men I’ve ever met,” said blues harp master Sugar Blue as he launched into an updated version of “Little Red Rooster”; for his solo, Blue blew more notes than seemed humanly possible!
Grandson Alex Dixon, dressed in one of Gramps’ vintage suit coats, stepped up to the mic for a rendition of “Let Me Love You Baby,” on which he sang and played guitar. He got some assist from Sugar Blue and guitarist Dan Carelli who both contributed solos.
Also helping out was a very cute little girl holding a pink purse who came on stage to play air guitar alongside Alex. She later shared the mic to sing “when you walk, you shake like a willow tree.” Adorable!
Guitarist John Watkins, who played in Willie Dixon’s band in the ’70s and went on to work with James Cotton and Jimmy Johnson, got the crowd to clap along as he sang: “what makes a man go crazy when a woman wears her skirt so tight,” from the song “The Same Thing.”
The whole Dixon cast came back on stage for the big finale, “Wang Dang Doodle,” and the ladies formed a chorus, taking turns on the verses, including the little girl. Watkins and Sugar Blue soloed as the blues women swayed. Appreciative fans jumped up to sing and clap along.
MUDDY WATERS CENTENNIAL TRIBUTE: with Bob Margolin, Mud Morganfield, Big Bill Morganfield, John Primer, Rick Kreher, Bob Stroger, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, E.G. McDaniel, Barrelhouse Chuck, Jerry Portnoy, Paul Oscher
What better way to pay tribute to this legendary blues titan than to gather his band members and two of his sons, along with a couple sons of the blues?
Paul Oscher began the homage to his former boss with an acoustic instrumental, as he played guitar and harp. “I played the first Chicago Blues Festival in ’69 with Muddy and Otis Spann. I lived in Muddy’s basement with Otis Spann,” he reminisced to the crowd. Oscher then played a slow blues tune featuring some slippery slide guitar.
Muddy’s longtime guitarist Bob Margolin came out with bassist Bob Stroger and Kenny Smith behind the drum kit for “Screamin’ and Cryin’,” which is exactly how Margolin made his old Telecaster sound with his slammin’, stinging notes. He then introduced pianist Barrelhouse Chuck and brought out Big Bill Morganfield to cheers from the enthusiastic audience.
“Yes, I’m the Hoochie Coochie Man,” Margolin forcefully sang with authority and Big Bill answered the call with some slide guitar.
Big Bill took us for a stroll as he sang and bopped to “Walking in the Park” with Barrelhouse Chuck tinkling the ivories. Oscher soloed on harp as did Margolin on guitar. Bill and the band ended the song with a bang and the crowd went wild, cheering and shouting its approval.
Bill put on his best swagger as he sang “Baby, I Wants To Be Loved”, backed by the perfect blues rhythm section of Kenny Smith (son of Muddy’s drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith) and Bob Stroger. Oscher helped out with a harp solo, too.
It was musical chair time, as bassist E.G. McDaniel (son of Floyd McDaniel), Muddy’s guitarists Rick Kreher and John Primer, plus Muddy’s harp blower Jerry Portnoy joined the action.
“My dad had a store on Maxwell Street. I owe Muddy a lot,” Portnoy said as he led off a slow blues instrumental on which he displayed his great control and note sustaining skills on harmonica. He ran through a variety of keys and styles, then picked up the pace as the band came to a crescendo and a big finish, which the crowd loved.
Not to be outdone, John Primer (longtime guitarist for both Muddy and Magic Slim) led an upbeat shuffle for “I Wanna Get Close To You Baby.” Rick Kreher helped close the number with a solo, as three Japanese lanterns flew overhead in the night sky, as if Muddy himself was sending a message of approval from the heavens.
Mud Morganfield made his entrance, dressed in a vivid sparkling blue blazer. He sat down, while patting his hands and pointing, clearly excited as he instructed the band to “play the blues!” “Blow Wind Blow,” sang Muddy’s son, who sounds so much like his Pops it’s eerie. Portnoy blew a solo and then Barrelhouse Chuck pounded the 88s. Mud was so stoked that he just had to get up and dance a little stomp, as John Primer played guitar in that authentic Chicago style.
Mud urged the band on for “She’s 19 Years Old”, and they did not hold back. Barrelhouse Chuck hit the keys like a madman; Primer looked to be strangling his guitar as he wrung out the notes. Mud enlisted the fans to sing “oh yeah” as he sang it back to them.
Everyone on stage was having a great time and so was the crowd!
However, the next number misfired. The band and Mud seemed to be performing two different songs. They came to a halt and consulted about the confusion; finally Mud told Barrelhouse Chuck to lead off and soon the ensemble fell in line. Kenny Smith held things together with a kickin’ boogie beat as Mud declared: “I’m gonna take her downtown and put clothes on her back.” Just then a mysterious lady came out from the wings and briefly danced all over the stage! (This lively lady was later revealed to be a close family friend).
Emcee Tom Marker brought out the entire ensemble for the big finish: Paul Oscher, Alex Dixon, Bob Margolin, John Primer took their places as Big Bill Morganfield stood next to Mud to trade verses on a rousing version of “Mannish Boy.” The half-brothers were obviously having so much fun singing and interacting with each other.
For the curtain call, Mud’s proud mother Mildred came out, wearing the same sort of glittery blue jacket as her son had on.
One hundred years is a long time, but Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and their music is timeless and unforgettable, as the many talented musicians proved tonight. And so ended Chicago Blues Fest 2015 on an positive blue note.
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