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LIVE REVIEW -- Chicago Blues Fest 2017/ Part 1
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Chicago Blues Fest 2017


June 9-11

Millennium Park, Chicago, IL

Be sure to check out Part 2 of our Chicago Blues Fest 2017 coverage

Mud Morganfield & band photo by Jenn Noble
Mud Morganfield & band on the Front Porch stage/photo: Jenn Noble

By Linda Cain

Like it or not, change is often inevitable. With change comes a sense of loss. When it was announced in January that Chicago Blues Fest was moving from Grant Park to the much smaller Millennium Park, blues fans reactions ranged from apprehension to sadness and many emotions in between. The fest had been staged in Grant Park for 34 years.

After all, Millennium Park is only one-third the size of Grant Park. Located near the famous tourist attraction Cloud Gate a.k.a “The Bean,” the park’s modern, state-of-the-art Pritzker Pavilion (both lawn and seating) capacity is 11,000.

Built in the 1930s, Grant Park’s Petrillo bandshell audience capacity is over 30,000. It is also owned by the Chicago Park District and the city must pay to rent Grant Park. They also must pay the parking meter vendors when streets are closed off to host events. And so plans were made to move Blues Fest into the 21st Century.

Would there be room for all the food and beer booths, charity booths, t-shirt and CD vendors, or souvenir booths? Would the all of the favorite afternoon side stages remain? Would there be enough shade and picnic areas? Was there enough seating and lawn space by the Pritzker stage? Would it be overcrowded and uncomfortable?

The answers to most of these questions remained up in the air until June 10, 11 and 12th arrived.  The weather was a factor; happily there was no rain. The weather on Friday was perfect and it wasn’t overcrowded. Saturday and Sunday saw 90 plus temps and large crowds that made moving around difficult and/or impossible. 

Nonetheless, there was much to like about the fest and the new location. Bathrooms with indoor plumbing, less walking distance between stages, not having to stand in line for food and drink tickets, plus superior sound and sightlines for the main stage were cited by many fans as the most popular improvements.

As always, the music was outstanding throughout the three day and night event. Here are just a FEW of the highlights that we caught on the afternoon stages.


Just as in past years, The Mississippi Stage was the hottest stage at the fest, both literally and figuratively. The acts booked on this small, low stage inside the biggest tent at the fest were outstanding.  It seemed there was a perpetual party going on at all times here. Top acts included: Eden Brent, Zakiya Hooker, Katherine Davis & Blues in the Schools, plus jams hosted by Cedrick Burnside, Kenny Smith and Eddie Taylor, Jr. and more.

Eden Brent
Edent Brent/ photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
Zakiya Hooker by Dianne
Zakiya Hooker/photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau


Cedric Burnside by jenn noble
Cedric Burnside/photo: Jenn Noble

On Friday afternoon, Herculean drummer/guitarist/singer/songwriter/film actor Cedric Burnside, accompanied by multi-talented Trenton Ayers (son of Junior Kimbrough) on guitar, worked as a two man wrecking crew and served up a smokin’ hot fusion of blues, funk, R&B and soul. Their main driving musical force, however was North Mississippi Hill Country blues, as handed down by Cedric’s grandpa the late legend R.L. Burnside. The performance left no doubt as to why the powerhouse drummer has won or been nominated for nearly every blues award in existence! 

Trent Ayers by Jenn Noble
Trenton Ayers/ photo: Jen Noble

The tireless Burnside and Ayers later hosted an exciting blues jam that drew skilled players from around the globe (including Chicago’s own Ellen Miller on blues harp) who joined in on blues standards to an enthusiastic crowd who cheered them on and danced in front of the stage.

Jarekus Singleton by Jenn Noble
photo: Jenn Noble

This was 32-year-old Jarekus Singleton’s second appearance at Chicago Blues Fest; his commanding performance at the fest a few years ago surely sealed his fate to get signed to Alligator Records. A former college basketball star, a knee injury derailed his athletic career, so Jarekus went back to playing music and has never looked back. His set at the Mississippi stage drew a younger crowd to the front, where his intense guitar playing and impassioned singing, along with a pulsing beat, kept everyone on their feet for the entire sweaty, one-hour set that seemed too short. 


Christone Ingram by Dianne
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Child guitar prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram packed the Mississippi Stage with folks crammed inside and outside the huge tent, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the 18-year-old Clarksdale native, who was whipping up a hurricane onstage with his fiery blend of Delta-influenced blues and blues-rock. His final number was a blues-rock rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” that rivaled Jimi Hendrix’s famed version. He left the crowd screaming for more!

Vick Allen by Dianne
Vick Allen/ photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Late afternoon, we dropped by in time to catch the end of “The Velvet Voice of Soul” Vick Allen’s sizzling set that had turned the entire tent into a Southern (and Northern) Soul Blues dance party. A very pumped up Allen worked the front of the stage and his slick band relentlessly pounded out funked up versions of classics by Johnny Taylor and Tyrone Davis that had an all-ages crowd on its feet dancing away!



JJ Thames
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

JJ Thames paced herself in the intense heat that burned down on the final day of Chicago Blues Fest. A powerful, passionate singer/songwriter with a versatile musical career that took her from her native Mississippi to Detroit and NYC and then back home again to partner with Eddie Cotton, Thames knew how to build drama and work the crowd with her sultry, sassy vocals. Her finale was Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a song that only the gutsiest of singers dare tackle, especially in Etta’s former hometown. But Thames pulled it off whilst emoting, pumping her fist, swirling and stomping about the stage. She sang her heart out! The audience wasted no time to give her a well-deserved standing ovation.

Denise LaSalle by Jenn Noble
Denise LaSalle/photo: Jenn Noble

At age 78, one would think that Denise LaSalle might have mellowed a bit. Not a chance! Although it took her a while to get on stage, as she grabbed onto the emcee’s arm, and she performed sitting down, Ms. LaSalle was feisty and filthy from the get-go! Her forceful voice growled out “Still the Queen” with conviction, as the packed crowd surged forward, filling the aisles and stage front to take photos and videos of this legendary performer. She belted out sassy renditions of soul blues standards including: “I Forgot To Remember To Forget About You,” “Down Home Blues,” “Steppin’ Out Steppin’ In” and “I’m Always Thinking About My Baby.”  At this point, she let loose with the XXX-rated blue humor, talking trash about her rival male soul singers such as Bobby Rush, Dr. Feelgood Potts, Theodis Ealey and Marvin Sease. We will leave it to your imagination as to what she was singing about in “Snap, Crackle & Pop.”


Located on the North Promenade of the park, The Mississippi Stage was housed in a huge, long narrow festival tent, set up with tourism and soft beverage booths, plus a very large seating area of plastic chairs strapped together. The stage is set very low, making it difficult to see the acts when seated in back, or when people are standing in front of you. When the temps hit over 90, the Mississippi tent became sauna-like, as there were no fans to cool off the patrons inside. At least it sheltered the crowds from the sun.

 Outside the tent, on either side, were long, narrow lawn spaces. About five food trucks sat in a row on the walkway parallel to the Mississippi tent stage. When lines formed, it completely blocked foot traffic and maintenance carts. The lines also ran into picnic areas on the lawn. Large plumes of obnoxious, nasty smoke blew onto picnickers from one truck vendor in particular.



Up the hill from the Mississippi Stage sat the Front Porch stage, which was housed under a comparatively smaller tent, located on an upper level green space above the Harris Theater, which is built underground. To reach it, fans had to climb stairs or take an elevator (which wasn’t easy to find). There was a wide, shaded area with trees off to the east side which sheltered fans from the merciless sun.

The Front Porch stage featured favorite traditional Chicago Blues acts including Jimmy Johnson, Jimmy Burns, Henry Gray & Bob Corritore, an all-star tribute to the late Barrelhouse Chuck, Mud Morganfield, a Chi-town Harp Showcase and more. The ambience here was more laid back than other stages, and it was a welcome respite from the more crowded and noisy scenes elsewhere in the park. The audience here seemed to be the most loyal and knowledgeable of blues fans, as opposed to the casual observer.


Henry Gray & Bob Corritore and Friends

Henry Gray & Bob Corritore by Jenn
Henry Gray & Bob Corritore/ photo: Jenn Noble

At age 92 blues/boogie pianist Henry Gray, who backed Howlin’ Wolf and many others, is a wonder and a treasure. So is bassist Bob Stroger, who at 86 still lays down a steady bottom and sings with conviction. Add to that Chicago’s top traditional blues players: guitar great Billy Flynn and drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, not to mention former Chicagoan Bob Corritore on harp and there is nothing better when it comes to real deal Chicago blues. The ensemble treated us to an hour long set of standards that included some tasty solos and jamming.

Henry Gray, Corritore, Flynn, Stroger by Jenn Noble
L to R: Henry Gray, Bob Corritore, Bob Stroger, Billy Flynn

As if that wasn’t enough, singer Oscar Wilson from the Cash Box Kings joined in for three robust blues tunes that really got the fans movin’ and groovin’. In fact, when time was called and the band unplugged, Henry Gray just kept playing his boogie woogie, he was so pumped up!

Oscar Wilson by Jenn Noble
Oscar Wilson/photo: Jenn Noble

Tribute to Barrelhouse Chuck with Billy Flynn, Ariyo, Johnny Iguana, Roosevelt Purifoy and Willie Oshawny

Barrelhouse Chuck by Jenn
Barrelhouse Chuck/photo: Jenn Noble

Chicago blues pianist Barrelhouse Chuck Goering passed away last December after a long battle with cancer at age 58. He was the only Chicago blues pianist to have studied with all of these blues keyboard legends: Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Blind John Davis, Detroit Junior, Little Brother Montgomery and Erwin Helfer. Not only was he mentored by these great men, but Chuck dutifully looked after them in their golden years. He was a passionate advocate for preserving blues music and history and Chuck’s home was virtually a museum filled with his vast collection of memorabilia. So it was only fitting that his fellow artists pay tribute to their fallen comrade, who were all influenced by Chuck in their lives.

Ariyo by Lee Ann Flynn
Ariyo/photo: Lee Ann Flynn
Roosevelt Purifoy by Lee Ann flynn
Roosevelt Purifoy/photo: Lee Ann Flynn

Roosevelt Purifoy, Ariyo, Johnny Iguana and Piano Willie Oshawny are all colorful characters, each with their own distinctive piano style, not to mention their own fashion sense.

Johnny Iguana by Lee Ann Flynn
Johnny Iguana/photo: Lee Ann Flynn

Each pianist played their own set and recalled their memories of Chuck and his music. The variety of historic blues, boogie and gospel piano styles that unfolded on the Front Porch stage was mind boggling. Ariyo, Roosevelt, Johnny and Willie were ably backed by the same crew who played with Henry Gray and Bob Corritore: Billy Flynn, Bob Stroger and Kenny Smith.



Mud Morganfield (vocals) w/ Ariyo (piano), Rick Kreher (guitar), Studebaker John (harmonica), E.G. McDaniel (bass), Melvin “Pookie Styx” Carlisle (drums).

Mud Morganfield Band by Jenn
L to R: Rick Kreher, Studebaker John, Mud Morganfield, EG McDaniel/ photo: Jenn Noble

The son of Muddy Waters, Mud Morganfield was dressed to the nines and commanded the stage from his stool, as he always does. His powerful, deep baritone and emphatic phrasing recalled the voice of his “Pops” as did his mannerisms. Charming and engaging, Mud has performed both his own tunes and Muddy’s songs all over the world to enthusiastic fans. This hot afternoon was no exception, and in fact was made extra special by the outstanding Chicago blues players who backed him. Guitarist Rick Kreher even played with Muddy Waters during the latter part of his legacy. The band played ensemble style, with each member allowed to play dazzling solos, which drew huge cheers from the crowd. For the final number Mud led his mates in a rousing version of “Got My Mojo Workin’” which was rewarded with a standing ovation!


Chi-town Harp Showcase w/ Omar Coleman, Russ Green and Lamont Harris

Chicago Blues Fest harp showcase
L to R: Tom Holland, Omar Coleman, Russ Green, David Forte/ photo: Lee Ann Flynn

When it comes to blues harp players, Chicago can boast about having the world’s greatest throughout its history. From Little Walter, Big Walter Horton to Sonny Boy Williamsons 1 & 2 on up to Junior Wells, Billy Branch and Sugar Blue, innovative artists like these have been influencing harmonica players worldwide for decades.

Omar Coleman, Russ Green and Lamont Harris are but three representatives of the current crop of harp blowers, of which there are many. Each player displayed their individual and impressive vocal and harmonica styles, not to mention showmanship, charisma and ability to connect with the fans who were both inside and outside the tent. They were backed by some of Chicago’s finest, most versatile musicians: Marty Binder on drums, guitarist Tom Holland, David Forte on bass, and Luca Chiellini on keys.

Lamont Harris
photo: Lee Ann Flynn

Lamont “Harmonica” Harris, a retired firefighter, started taking harmonica lessons later in life courtesy of the Old Town School of Folk Music. He quickly absorbed the Chess catalogue and his set was a tasty example of Chicago’s classic blues style, reminiscent of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Willie Dixon’s era.

Russ Green by Lee Ann
photo: Lee Ann Flynn

Russ Green, age 49, was influenced and mentored by virtuoso harmonicist Sugar Blue; and like Blue, Green hit the stage hard, blowing furious notes while backed by a driving beat. Green never let up the entire time and managed to get the hot sweaty crowd boogying.

Omar Coleman by Lee Ann Flynn
photo: Lee Ann Flynn

Omar Coleman, age 43, also picked up the harmonica later in life. He grew up listening to soul-blues artists like Tyrone Davis and Bobby Rush in his mom’s West Side club, Louise’s Lounge. His vocal style is very soulful and his harp playing is fast and funky, like his idol Junior Wells. And just like the legends he admires, Coleman is an ace showman and songwriter, who has two CDs on Delmark and one independent album under his belt. Coleman’s multi-talents were on full display as he got our mojos workin’.

For the big finale, Coleman called back Harris and Green to join him on the Junior Wells classic “Two Headed Woman” which brought the house down.



The Crossroads stage was completely outdoors at the South Promenade end of the park, towards the Art Institute. To get there, one had to make it through the gauntlet of beer and food trucks. When lines formed, it was near impassable, as the queues from both sides created a human wall. Alongside the south walkway, on both sides, were small park areas that were jam packed, as well, especially on Saturday and Sunday, when shade was imperative. Depending on the time of day, there was no shade for the seating area in front of the Crossroads stage. Between the heat and the crowds, many of us were forced to avoid this stage. Most of the acts on the Budweiser Crossroads stage were top-notch hometown talent, including: Nick Moss Band, Guy King, Mike Wheeler, Demetria Taylor, Mary Lane, Chicago Wind, Lynne Jordan, Joe Pratt, Tail Dragger, Vance Kelly and more.

We prevailed by stepping over picnic blankets to make it to the Crossroads stage to see two incredible non-hometown acts on Saturday: Big Bill Morganfield and Coco Montoya.


Big Bill Morganfield

Big Bill Morganfield by Jenn Noble
photo: Jennifer Noble

The son of Muddy Waters, who was raised in Florida and now resides in Georgia, made the decision to become a blues artist in earnest after his father’s passing in 1983. He spent years woodshedding, learned to play slide guitar and write songs. His 1999 debut CD, Rising Son, was released on Blind Pig Records, on which he was accompanied by Muddy’s former bandmates: Bob Margolin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Pinetop Perkins and Paul Oscher; it earned him a W.C. Handy Award for Best New Blues Artist. A second Blind Pig CD followed, and in 2013, Bill formed his own label and released two chart-topping, critically acclaimed albums.

On the Crossroads Stage Big Bill Morganfield was accompanied by Rick Kreher, who famously played guitar for Muddy Waters. Also helping out were other Chicago blues notables: Twist Turner on drums, bass player John Sefner, Ariyo on keys and Doc Malone on harp.

Big Bill began his set while seated, and played some stinging slide guitar for a slightly naughty song titled “Tight.” Ariyo turned in a tasty keyboard solo on a rousing “I Got My Eyes On You,” that turned into a nice ensemble jam. Bill’s next song was a deep blues done Muddy style, a very sad song about losing his mother; he played a heartfelt passionate solo and then the rest of the band contributed another ensemble jam that featured some sweet slide playing by Rick Kreher.

Rick Kreher & Big Bill Morganfield by Jenn Noble
Rick Kreher & Big Bill/photo: Jenn Noble

Big Bill lightened the mood with an upbeat shuffle about his “X-rated lover” that got people dancing, at least the lucky ones who found some shade off to the sides of the stage. The 90 plus degree sun was beating down on the unlucky ones who were sitting in the seats in front of the stage.

A Muddy Waters cover, “Baby, I Want To Be Loved,” with its loping beat got us swaying as Big Bill delivered the lyrics in his commanding baritone. It was time for some more Muddy music as Bill brought out his brother Joe Morganfield to sing “Mannish Boy” which got the crowd screaming upon hearing the first notes of this macho classic. Bill joined in and he and Joe hammed it up, clearly having a blast. 

Coco Montoya

Coco Montoya by Jenn
photo: Jenn Noble

It seemed a bit strange that a blues veteran of Coco Montoya’s stature would perform on a side stage in the afternoon at Chicago Blues Fest, rather than the main stage at night. After all, this guitar slinger was closely mentored by Albert Collins for five years and played in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers for a decade, before going solo in 1990.

But anytime is a good time to see this triple threat singer/songwriter/guitarist, even in 90 plus degree heat. Montoya played songs from his critically acclaimed new CD, Hard Truth, on Chicago’s Alligator label, including: “’Bout To Make Me Leave Home,” (a sexy Syl Johnson tune famously covered by Bonnie Raitt), and “Truth Be Told.”

Montoya had the crowd mesmerized with his passionate, soulful vocals and emotion-packed, driving guitar solos from the get-go. “Senorita,” with its irresistible Latin rhythms was perfect for a hot afternoon.

          The band played an upbeat shuffle on a Ronnie Earl song, “She’s So Good For Me,” that had us clapping along to the joyous tune. Keyboardist Jerry Brant Leeper contributed gospel infused stylings, that uplifted the tune.

          The sorrowful “Let Me Cry,” was enhanced by Leeper’s moving organ accompaniment that perfectly matched Montoya’s heart-breaking guitar notes.

“Lovin’ You Wasn’t Easy,” a song he introduced as “Joan Baez meets Megadeath,” kept building with chunky riffs and jamming that recalled Govt. Mule.  Coco delivered his final searing solo that had us on our feet cheering.

Coco Montoya by Jenn
photo: Jenn Noble

Coco dedicated the next number to Albert Collins, Lonnie Brooks and Gregg Allman. He said kind words of praise about all of them. He told us that “I’ve Got Nothing But Love” was inspired by Collins’ last words before he passed on. This, of course, gave the poignant, melodic tune -- featuring harmonies by his bandmates and a swirling organ -- a special gravitas.

Montoya’s final song was a catchy little ditty he first heard as a child on the radio: “Buzz Buzz Buzz” by the Hollywood Flames from the 1950s that got us boppin’ along.


Windy City Blues Society and Fernando Jones’ Blues Kids Stages

Michael Ledbetter & Nick bass player by Jenn Noble
Michael Ledbetter & Nick Fane/photo: Jenn Noble

When Chicago Blues Fest was in Grant Park, the first stages you passed upon entering from the north, were the Fernando Jones’ Blues Kids Tent Stage and The Windy City Blues Society Stage. Both locations were always hoppin’ with crowds surrounding the small stages to see great talent, not to mention the major blues artists stopping by to jam.

The new Millennium Park location left no room for two separate stages. Both enterprises were forced to share the same stage and cut their programming time down to only five 30-minute sets per day (only 15 minutes for Fernando’s kids), with required quiet time breaks in between. There were no signs and no schedules provided to help blues fans find these once popular stages, or to know who was playing on them. This was a huge oversight. Fernando’s Blues Kids are always a joy to watch and performing at the fest is a priceless experience for them. Nonetheless, the WCBS stage hosted outstanding acts such as: The Cash Box Kings, Michael Ledbetter, Derrick Procell, Rob Stone, Alastair Green, J.B. Ritchie, Shoji Naito, The Black Oil Brothers and more.

Be sure to check out Part 2 of our Chicago Blues Fest 2017 coverage.















rambler.jpg lynnejordan.jpgLynne Jordan