Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
CHICAGO BLUES FESTIVAL 2016
June 10 – 12
Grant Park, Chicago
By Linda Cain
“I’ve got a Chicago weather woman/
She change like the weather all the time.”
--- Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater
There are always questions on blues fans’ minds in anticipation of the world’s largest free blues festival each year. “What will the weather be like?” is always the foremost concern. And this year, the burning question that was being asked for weeks in advance of Sunday night’s all-star Tribute to Otis Rush was: “Will Otis show up?”
The legendary blues artist has suffered ill health on and off for decades since he stopped performing and has been reclusive. However last summer he was a guest in the first row to see Carlos Santana at Ravinia; he stood and waved and was shown on the Jumbo Tron screen when Carlos introduced him. So we held out hope that Otis would be able to attend his own party.
Only in Chicago can the temperatures reach 93 degrees one day and then drop to a high of 68 the next. And that is exactly what happened in Grant Park: hot summer weather on Friday and Saturday that sent us scrambling for the shade; Sunday sent us scrounging for jackets and pants that barely helped keep us warm at night with the cold winds coming off the lake. At least it didn’t rain.
So it was the cooler temps that greeted Otis Rush when he made his triumphant appearance on the Petrillo stage Sunday night. During opening sets by Ronnie Earl and Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, fans and paparazzi kept their eyes and ears open for any sign of the legendary blues artist. Chicago blues greats drifted into the backstage area to watch the show, mingle and pose for photos, including: Shemekia Copeland, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Billy Branch, Toronzo Cannon, Donald Kinsey, Dave Weld & Monica Myhre, Alex Dixon and others.
During The Chief’s set, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was seen with his escorts in the press/VIP section, as he made his way backstage, so we knew something was up. Then a limo was sighted behind the stage area, and witnesses reported seeing Otis exit into a wheelchair that was quickly wheeled backstage. Word got around and, needless to say, once Clearwater finished his set, the night air was electric with anticipation.
After a short break to set up, The Otis Rush Tribute was officially underway at 9 p.m. as emcee Tom Marker introduced Otis and his family, who stood around him on the right side of the stage. Chicago’s mayor then read a proclamation, filled with many whereas statements, declaring June 12, 2016 to be Otis Rush Day in Chicago. Sitting in his wheelchair, Otis raised his arms in a victory symbol, grinning from ear to ear as the crowd stood, applauded and cheered him. Otis was presented the mic; he said thank you and hollered: “Lemme hear you say yeah!” three times, to which we heartily responded. This was one happy man!
Noted record producer and author
Dick Shurman, who expertly coordinated the entire tribute which
featured about 30 musicians, took over the proceedings, starting with a
short tribute video. (The newly installed Jumbo Tron screens are a very
welcome addition to Chicago Blues Fest). The video showed B&W footage of
a young Otis Rush belting out “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” interspersed with
praise and memories from Carlos Santana, Steve Miller and Buddy Guy.
Sunday, June 12
TRIBUTE TO OTIS RUSH
Dick Shurman brought out the luminaries who would perform the first set and introduced each of them with succinct bios: Guitarists Billy Flynn and Monster Mike Welch, bassist Harlan Terson, pianist Ariyo (Sumito Ariyoshi), organist Brother John Kattke, drummer Big Ray and a to-die-for six-piece horn section (Kenny Anderson, Hank Ford, Willie Henderson, Willie Woods, Leon Q. Allen, Rawl Hardman). Most of the players had backed Otis Rush, both live and in the studio, at various times and places.
The band warmed up with an instrumental, “I Wonder Why,” led by classic blues expert Billy Flynn on old school lead guitar. Monster Mike Welch contributed a killer solo, which fully illustrated how he came by his blues nickname.
It was followed by a short speech from Buddy Guy praising Otis Rush; however, due to contractual obligations, Buddy could not join in the performance (he is playing with Jeff Beck at Ravinia this summer). Shurman brought out the first singer of the night, Michael Ledbetter, a member of the Nick Moss Band who also sang on Ronnie Earl’s most recent CD, Father’s Day. Ledbetter’s majestic, soaring pipes served up a dynamic version of the Rush classic “Right Place Wrong Time,” as the horn section powered through the piece, which ended to thundering applause.
Guitarists Lurrie Bell (on lead) and Barstool Bob Levis (on rhythm) were next for the sorrowful “My Love Will Never Die” -- Lurrie’s gruff, world weary vocals and potent string bending combined for an emotional rendition.
Eddie Shaw stepped to the mic between songs to declare his respect for his former boss. “Otis, for 50 years, I love you!” Shaw was scheduled to sing and play saxophone for the show, but had to decline due to recent heart surgery, from which he is recovering very quickly.
It was nice to see Brother John Kattke step out from behind his B-3 to take a turn in the spotlight, while Marty Sammon took over on organ. Kattke strapped on his guitar to deliver a perfect version of “Homework.” His long hair flowing, the multi-talented musician’s robust, soulful vocals and stinging guitar leads rang out into the night. Bob Levis and Abb Locke joined in, each rendering a solo, as the stellar horn section brassed it up.
Guitarists Anthony Palmer and Carl Weathersby were next. Weathersby played lead and sang a dramatic “Walk The Backstreets And Cry,” giving the tormented music and lyrics his all.
Next up: musical chairs with a change of personnel as Shurman brought out bassist Bob Stroger, drummer Sam Burton, guitarists Jimmy Johnson, Mike Wheeler and Shun Kikuta for the enduring Otis Rush song “So Many Roads.”
Jimmy Johnson’s signature plaintive, high tenor voice and passionate blues guitar stylings belied his age. At 87 years young, the 2016 Blues Hall of Fame inductee sounds much the same as he did 20 years ago! The veteran led off the song, followed by passionate guitar solos from Shun Kikuta and Mike Wheeler. The latter took a turn at a verse on vocals and guitar, and impressed the audience with his smooth soulful voice and solid guitar work. Johnson returned to the mic to finish the number to huge applause. The three guitarists continued the tribute with “Three Times A Fool,” again taking turns, with Johnson closing it out.
More personnel came onstage: Billy Prewitt on harp and guitar, drummer Brian B.J. Jones, guitarist Ronnie Earl and singer Diane Blue for an emotion-packed cover of “Double Trouble,” an Otis song that Ronnie Earl often includes in his own live shows. Marty Sammon and Brother John tickled the 88s with flair, as Earl made each blue note count and Diane did the same with the emotional depth of her singing.
Otis Rush’s fellow West Side blues contemporary Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, now a feisty octogenarian, sounded truly inspired as he played up and down the neck of his big red guitar and sang “All Your Love, I Miss Lovin’” with gusto. The Chief kept up with the band and the song’s quick tempo changes as the mighty horn section rocked!
Powerhouse singers Michael Ledbetter and Diane Blue returned for the final number, “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Ledbetter initiated the song acapella by drawing out the first word, “I” to epic proportions (in keeping with his classical, operatic training). You could almost hear the jaws dropping. The audience roared its approval at the singer’s phenomenal pipes. This young man’s outstanding performance assured blues fans that the genre’s future is on good hands.
Ronnie Earl and Mike Welch traded lead guitar chores with help from Billy Flynn. Keyboardists Ariyo and Marty Sammon were quite a site, as they shared the piano on the left side of the stage, playing a lively duet accompaniment.
Passionate, smoky voiced, singer Diane Blue got her turn, infusing each sad verse with teardrops and squeezing sentiment from each word. She and Ledbetter traded back and forth until there were no more words to sing, just some soulful moans and wails to close out the final night of Chicago Blues Fest Number 33.
Over the years, the fest has produced a number of all-star tributes, including last year’s flawed centennial celebrations of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. But this Tribute to Otis Rush was the tribute to end all tributes, one for the ages. It was certainly one of the finest, most well-paced blues shows to ever grace the Petrillo Bandshell in Grant Park. Mere words fail to describe just how phenomenal and thrilling this show was. You had to be there, but thanks to fans that posted on YouTube, you can catch some tasty tidbits of the show online.
Hats off to producer Dick Shurman who rose to the monumental task of organizing, planning, emceeing and directing about 30 musicians during weeks of rehearsals. The hard work paid off and things ran like clockwork. And best of all, the mercurial legend himself was there to witness it all.
RONNIE EARL & THE BROADCASTERS
The evening started with an opening set by guitarist Ronnie Earl who, throughout his storied career, has always been an avid and sincere Otis Rush devotee. As a youth, he made a pilgrimage on a Greyhound bus to Chicago from his NYC home in the ‘60s to meet and learn from his blues idols. Their influence is never far from Earl’s own musical oeuvre. The virtuosic guitarist, who does not sing, started his set with four instrumental numbers, as he strolled across the stage, playing both upbeat and midtempo numbers. He kept the volume on his guitar turned down low, playing notes that felt like teardrops falling soft and slow. His technique strives to draw the listener in, a method that works well in an intimate venue, but not so much for a huge outdoor festival. Earl’s quiet music had to compete with the new Rosa’s Lounge, mini-stage, set up right behind the Petrillo stage. Rosa’s open jam was loudly rockin’ and making a racket throughout the entire evening. It made it difficult to enjoy Earl’s subdued set.
Singer Diane Blue made her entrance for the fifth song, a Chicago blues style song “Higher Love,” which kicked things up a notch. The sorrowful Albert King ballad “As The Years Go Passing By” displayed Diane and Ronnie’s synchronicity; she sings the way that Ronnie plays -- with sincere emotion and from the heart.
They piled on the emotion for a cover of Sam Cooke’s protest song “A Change Is Gonna Come”; Diane and Ronnie began quietly as the organ swelled in gospel style. She stood next to him, her hand on his shoulder, listening and swaying, as Ronnie spoke volumes through his guitar. As the tempo picked up, Diane wailed as Ronnie built up steam and really cut loose. The audience responded with a standing ovation.
Keeping up the momentum, they followed with the Bo Diddley classic “Before You Accuse Me,” which Diane belted out. The versatile singer did justice to Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind,” for her final number. The set ended with a piano boogie instrumental, “Dueces Holdin’,” a fun, hip shakin’ number on which pianist/keyboardist Dave Limina skillfully pounded the 88s.
EDDY “THE CHIEF” CLEARWATER
Dressed in a colorful Indian chief headdress, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater made his entrance to the sound of thumping tom toms, courtesy of drummer Steve Bass, for his signature song, “They Call Me The Chief.” He quickly followed with a rockin’ version of “Hypnotized” which featured Tom Crivellone’s searing guitar solo, as Eddy sang at the mic, utilizing his rhythmic vocal chops.
Clearwater swapped the feathered bonnet for his blues man’s hat and strapped on his guitar for “Find You A Job,” a tell-off tune, which featured the versatile guitarist Shoji Naito on harmonica. The humorous, Chuck Berry styled rocker, “Too Old To Get Married, Too Young To Be Buried” kept the mood merry.
Clearwater served up blues classics “Big Boss Man” and “My Babe,” songs that always get folks singing along. The Chief and his tribe thundered along on more rockabilly with “My Baby Left Me ‘Cause I Wouldn’t Put My Guitar Down,” which earned big cheers from the crowd.
The tempo turned down for some slow, sad blues as the Chief sang “I Came Up the Hard Way,” featuring his haunting guitar work.
Switching gears, the band really got its groove on, with bassist Dave Knoff delivering his best walking bass line as The Chief took us for a “Cool Blues Walk,” which earned them a standing ovation.
The final number was another fast-paced danceable rocker, “Guitar Boogie Jam,” which closed Clearwater’s set in style. At age 81, The Chief remains a class act. Like fellow octogenarian Buddy Guy (who turns 80 on July 30), he has solid support from a skilled team of young guns, who can turn on a dime in near mind-reading fashion.