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LIVE REVIEW -- Chicago Blues Festival 2009


June 12-14


Soul revues and ladies sing the Blues


A makeshift memorial to Koko Taylor stands on the Petrillo stage. There were many tributes to the late Queen of the Blues during the Chicago Blues Festival, 2009.

Click on above photo to see more photos of the Blues Fest

By Linda Cain

Photos By: Jennifer Wheeler

            Belt tightening seemed to be the theme of this year’s 26th Annual Chicago Blues Festival, which is not surprising during a recession.  Rather than celebrate four days of blues, there were only three days this year, from Friday through Sunday. Last year, there were seven stages; this year the fest was down to five stages. (There was a spot on Columbus Drive near the Art Institute called the Maxwell Street Corner, but the bands that played there on the street weren’t listed on the official fest schedule).

            And rather than bring big names to town, such as last year’s headliners B.B. King and Johnny Winter, the fest booked many local blues artists. Booking Chicago blues acts may not excite the locals, who take them for granted since they regularly perform in small blues clubs all over town. But consider this: if you give a great local band a spot on an outdoor festival stage and a budget to allow them to maybe hire a horn section and invite some special guests, and throw in  a crowd full of cheering blues fanatics, well look out!  It’s a totally different experience for both band and audience that can be enjoyed beyond the blues bars. (Oftentimes the audience becomes part of the act and the crowd is always filled with some real characters. This is, after all a free festival). To out- of-towners, seeing Chicago’s top talent is a rare treat.

It was also an opportunity to showcase local blues labels: Earwig Music (which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year), and Delmark Records which turned 55 last year. Both labels were each represented by several outstanding artists that record for them.

While last year’s 25th Anniversary fest surely upstaged this year’s scaled back fest, nevertheless there was plenty of great music to enjoy over the three-day event. And best of all, it’s free.

Here are some of the highlights.

Friday, June 12

Front  Porch Stage

Charlie Musselwhite

If you’ve never heard of him, think of the INXS hit, “Suicide Blonde” and the amazing harp solo on it. Yes, that’s Charlie, one of the best blues harp blowers in the business and still going strong.  He’s a Memphis/Mississippi native who migrated to Chicago as a teen to apprentice with our town’s late legends. Charlie soaked up the styles of Little Walter, Junior Wells, James Cotton, etc. but he has developed his own distinctive flair on the “Mississippi saxophone.”  These days his material is always top-notch and so are his backing bands. This time his group included a scorching hot young guitarist named Matthew Stubbs who had the crowd cheering nearly every time he soloed. The band didn’t just back Charlie; together as a unit they seemed to soar to the top of Chicago’s skyline with the sounds of Charlie’s harp echoing off the tall buildings downtown. When super cool Charlie sings and plays the blues with his sincere delivery, you know he’s lived to tell about it. This was an exciting blues set from start to finish and the audience was so packed that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give this fine artist a Petrillo slot next time.

Petrillo Stage

Eddie C. Campbell

Shirley Johnson, Eddie C. Campbell

Delmark artist Shirley Johnson demonstrated why she’s had such staying power since she migrated to Chicago in the ‘80s.  Once a shy, gospel singer from Virginia who came here to sing the blues, Shirley’s dreams surely were realized as she hit the Petrillo stage backed by a big band and a horn section, a luxury she doesn’t have in the blues clubs.  She isn’t a blues belter; rather, she has great rhythm, a highly emotional timbre and a subdued power behind her rich voice. When she tells it, you know where she’s coming from.  She’s been there and she testifies, rather than shouts it. The sleekly glamorous singer moved about the stage like a lioness targeting her prey, namely the audience,  that she handily captured. For her finale, she sang a soulful, dramatic version of Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart” to cheers.  Like the title of her current release, Ms. Johnson succeeded in unleashing her “Blues Attack.”

The fest feted Delmark’s Eddie C. Campbell for his 70th birthday, gifting him with the headlining slot of the night. Known for his West Side roots (he came up with late legends Magic Sam and Luther Allison) the skilled guitarist can play Chicago blues like nobody’s business. However he’s also known for his eclectic embracing of many musical forms and is truly an original.  He mixes up a tasty concoction of blues, jazz, Latin, surf rock, country, R&B, soul, funk and you- name-it, sometimes all in one song. He’s a quick and clever musician who keeps his band and the audience on their toes. It’s hard to believe he’s 70.

The wiley guitarist performed songs from his new CD, Tear This World Up, which features Campbell’s excellent original songs plus his own spin on two Magic Sam classics. The comical title track, a lively jump blues number which tells the bedroom tale of a romance that never got started because the lover man fell asleep, went over quite well, especially when Campbell snored into the mic. Some of his long instrumental jams went over better than others. The ones that didn’t work were reminiscent of Grateful Dead shows I’ve attended in which the endless jams induced the crowd to nod off. The Campbell jams that did work were the ones that utilized the horn section and got into a cool groove, including a cover of James Brown’s “Sex Machine” (which Campbell dedicated to Koko Taylor for some reason) and a very unique rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Sadly, the weather wasn’t very summer-like, but at least it didn’t rain that night.

Saturday, June 13

Route 66 Roadhouse

Art of the Slide Guitar Workshop

John Primer, Lil’ Ed, Elmore James, Jr., Jeremy Spencer

Part educational seminar, part jam session,  this workshop featured four slide playing greats together on one little stage under one small tent -- a setting far too cramped to hold such big talent and an even bigger crowd. We managed to squeeze in and have a peak for the last part of the event. The players were discussing the origins of the invention of the guitar slide. In the rural south, hay baling wire would be stretched out tautly and nailed to the side of a barn, while the neck of a pop bottle would be fashioned into a slide. Or perhaps an empty lipstick tube would be used.  The late blues artist Cedell Davis was known to use a butter knife as a slide, they informed the crowd. The quartet ended the session with “Sweet Home Chicago,” featuring a fine solo from each artist, who nimbly demonstrated their distinctive personal slide playing style.


Crossroads Stage

travis haddix

Travis “Moonchild” Haddix

The Earwig recording artist looked dashing in his royal blue outfit with a matching head band. Exuding loads of charisma, with a million-watt smile, infectious stage manner and shout outs to audience members, Haddix really knew how to get the crowd dancing and smiling along to his original music.  An accomplished songwriter who hails from Cleveland, he’s written tunes for everyone from the late Son Seals and Jimmy Dawkins to Artie “Blues Boy” White (who was somewhere in the audience).

The talented and versatile singer/guitarist easily switched back and forth between blues, R&B, funk and soul, sometimes within the same song. His originals range from catchy and upbeat with positive themes (I Want a Good Job”, “I’m a Winner”), to lowdown blues (“Shatterproof Heart”) to comical, racy subject matter (“Two Heads Are Better Than One”). Haddix delighted in teasing the crowd on the latter, asking permission to continue as each verse got racier.

The Gibson Crossroads stage offered plenty of room for Haddix’s eight-piece ensemble and for the very large crowd that spread out from the pavement into the park.  The band featured a lively three-man horn section and each blower turned in powerful solos. The trumpet player enjoyed dancing with Haddix on a couple numbers, too.

Haddix finished his set with his trademark declaration: “I am the best that I can be. And since no one else can be me, there’s none better.”  The cheering audience testified to that.


Mississippi Juke Joint Stage

John Primer

We made our way through the park and its gardens and headed to Buckingham Fountain (where there are real washrooms). And then on to see John Primer on the stage sponsored by the state where he was born. The show was already in progress as Primer leapt in the air to reach the front of the stage where he hammed it up for the photographers. There were dancers in front of the stage and all of the bench seats were filled.  Primer prowled the stage, playing to each section of the fans, who cheered him on.

            Backed by two older blues veterans for the smokin’ rhythm section, Primer’s Real Deal band featured two young white dudes, on harmonica and harp respectively, who blew everyone away on their solos. Primer’s solos are a force of nature as he delves into the guitar styles of gospel and country from the deep South and the classic Chicago blues he learned from playing in bands with Muddy Waters and Magic Slim. This man can make a guitar speak!

            In honor of his late great mentor, Primer began to sing “everything, everything, everything gonna be alright this mornin’…” and launched into “I’m A Man.” The crowd stood, cheered and danced and shouted “Yeah!” in the all the right places.

It was hard to break away from this excellent set, but Lil’ Ed beckoned.


Front Porch Stage

Lil' Ed

Lil Ed & The Blues Imperials

The party was still in progress here. Fans were crammed up close to the stage to get a good look at this colorful, smiling performer. To the right stood a flock of Ed Heads, wearing homemade fez hats, fashioned of posterboard and decorated with glitter and pasted-on photos of Ed’s favorite foods: chicken, gravy and biscuits.

Lil’ Ed had just played several rapid-fire tunes, featuring his scorching slide guitar. We could hear the fans’ cheers rising up as we approached the shady grove to reach the Front Porch stage. When we arrived, he was sliding away on “Don’t Call Me” a song from his latest Alligator CD Full Tilt. Ed wailed:  don’t send me no email/ don’t send me a fax/ don’t call me on the telephone/ just leave…poor me alone.” (It’s a song about modern day annoyances, written pre-Twitter. Imagine the potential for new lyrics now.)

 He finished his set with a slow, country-blues tune and a love song to his wife. Primer’s and Ed’s sets were both at the exact same time slot, and it’s times like these you wish you could clone yourself.


Petrillo Stage

Sir Walter Scott & the Mighty World Band with the Southside Angels (Miss Peaches, Claudette & Miss Jese’)

Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings with Daddy G (Gene Barge) and Trudy Lynn

Bettye LaVette

Sir Walter Scott and company put on a full blown soul/R&B revue featuring a large band with a horn section and three female backup singers. The Southside Scott family features several generations of talented musicians who have worked with everyone from Ike & Tina Turner to the O’Jays. Again, since we couldn’t produce clones, we caught the end of the set with the dynamic Miss Jese’ (a.k.a. “Miss Sweetheart of Soul”). She and the trio of singers covered “Proud Mary,” with sass and style, complete with choreography.

Another large band with a mighty horn section took the stage next. The Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings have been serving up sizzling R&B and blues since the ‘70s, when they were known as the Mellow Fellows, the band behind the late singer Big Twist. These days the band features Gene “Daddy G” Barge on sax and vocals. The famed musician/songwriter/producer worked at Chess Studios and played on hit records with everyone from Koko Taylor to Little Milton and Gary “U.S.” Bonds. The Kings lived up to their royal name, and blew the roof off the Petrillo stage with dynamic instrumentals featuring powerful horn and guitar solos. Daddy G came up front to sing the last few numbers in his deep, soulful voice, much to the audience’s delight.

Trudy Lynn

Houston’s big-voiced blues mama Trudy Lynn lit up the stage next with her earthshakin’ vocals and downhome blues numbers.  Her powerful pipes rose above the R&B Kings’ big sound with ease.  Attired in a sparkling black dress, with a matching fan dangling from her finger, which she twirled about for emphasis, Lynn strutted her stuff all over the stage, dancing, prancing and entertaining the crowd like the blues veteran that she is. Her set consisted of a blues greatest hits repertoire. She growled out “Hound Dog,”  “Teeny Weeny Bit of Your Love,” “Down Home Blues,”  “Baby What You Want Me to do,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “C.C. Rider,”  “Hey, Hey the Blues are Alright.”  Some of the songs were served up in a clever medley style. One of her numbers, “Wake Up, Mama Needs Her Morning Meal,” was filled with double entendres such as “I’ll be your honeydew melon, all juicy and ripe” The feisty singer worked it to a sexy climax and drew a standing ovation from the audience.  Lynn spoke of being inspired by Koko Taylor and dedicated her final song to the late blues legend, “Come To Mama.” It was a version that surely would have pleased the Queen herself.

bettye lavette

It was a tough act to follow, but Bettye LaVette pulled out all the stops with her deeply soulful and intensely emotional vocal performance. Dressed in a black spandex jumpsuit and black high heels, LaVette looked far more slinky and athletic than a 63-year-old grandmother has a right to be. Her throaty, raspy, and dramatic vocals are reminiscent of a young Tina Turner. LaVette is more than a singer; she’s an uncanny stylist who turns herself inside out to find deep meaning in every word she sings. She truly puts her heart and soul into every performance. Hers isn’t a pretty voice; rather it’s a well-worn voice of experience.

She started the show with her hits from 1962 to ’65: “My Man—He’s A Loving Man,”  “You’ll Never Change,” “Baby, You’ll Fall For Me,Too,” and “Let Me Down Easy.”  LaVette gave new meaning to the song that she performed on the steps of the White House during President Obama’s inaugural festivities: Sam Cooke’s civil rights epic “A Change is Gonna Come.”  Then it was time for some energetic dancing as she sang “You Don’t Know Me.”  For Willie Nelson’s heartbroken “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” she took a “senior moment” to perform seated in a half-lotus position on the floor of the stage. Then she was up and dancing again for “Falling In Love.”  LaVette performed her final number a capella and mesmerized the crowd with her version of the gut-wrenching Sinead O’Connor song “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” The crowd rose in appreciation of a soul satisfying show.


Sunday, June 14

Front Porch Stage

Lou Pride

Chicago’s suave soul, blues and R&B vocalist was swinging away with The Blues Disciples to a packed crowd who was cheering him on when we arrived. The great sounding band consisted of  a horn trio, Hammond organ, bass, guitar and drums, plus a foxy female harmonizer. The smooth, sensuous singer was sounding a lot Al Green on “Midnight Call.”  “Meet me at midnight, baby, down by the lake,” he beckoned while ladies in the crowd hollered back their willingness. It was a variation on a cut from his most recent CD on the Severn label, Keep On Believing. Pride changed the “cheatin’ woman” lyrics to turn the song into one with a happier ending. 

            Dressed in a fine looking blue suit and tie, Pride is a versatile vocalist and improviser. His musical style ranges from soulful romantic crooner like Al Green to a get funky, get dancin’ Tyrone Davis style to a Marvin Gaye mode of groovy social/political songs. Pride can get bluesy gritty, too, as he proved on his final number, a combination of “Hoochie Coochie Man” mixed with the “Wang Dang Doodle” chorus  of “all night long,” done to a John Lee Hooker boogie beat. Pride dedicated the number to Koko Taylor, who he remembered as “one of the sweetest, most peaceful people you’d ever want to know.”  Pride improvised funny, sexy lyrics as he took on the Hoochie Man personae. “Mothers, lock up your daughters…I’m gonna kiss you everywhere on your body,” he sang, flirting with the ladies in front.


Crossroads Stage

Lee Boys

This sacred steel family band from Perrine, Florida was engaged in a rousing instrumental jam when we stopped by. If you are familiar with Robert Randolph & the Family Band, then you know what this family band sounds like. It’s an irresistibly joyous, rhythmic music.  In the House of God churches, the pedal steel is the main instrument and the players know how to rock it. The Lee boys were bringing the church to the Blues Fest congregation, urging them to feel the spirit, clap and dance. Most everyone obliged. Since we had seen these inspiring performers a couple times before, we decided to get back to the Front Porch stage to get a good spot before showtime.


Front Porch Stage

Rabbit  Factory Soul Revue

harvey scales-rabbit factory

This old school style soul revue came through town to play at the Hideout last summer. The small club was so packed with devotees and the curious that folks were turned away in numbers, or had to stand in line to try and get in.

This is definitely a fun, party band that can entertain on a big outdoor stage for a vast crowd. The audience, in fact, is part of the show. The lineup features The Checkmates, a talented  eight-piece ensemble comprised mainly of young white musicians, who serve as the backup band for three Southern soul singers Herbert Wiley, Ralph “Soul” Jackson and Harvey Scales.

Each singer had his own style, both in a musical and fashion sense. Herb Wiley, the eldest of the singers came out first, dancing and dressed in a white suit. He seemed to have gotten some of his dance moves from Cab Calloway, as he crazily bounced his legs open and closed to the beat of a Memphis style number. The spry, charismatic senior was joined for a Junior Wells song by Chicago Blues Guide contributor James Porter, who lent his blues harp skills to the Rabbit revue. “I Want Your Love in My Life” was an infectious, upbeat pop/R&B number that featured a sweet duet with the lovely young backup vocalist, Amber.  Wiley closed with a Bo Diddley tribute, “Hey Bo Diddley” and “Who Do You Love,” that got the crowd shouting and singing along.

The lanky Ralph Jackson was up next, looking sharp in a maroon suit with a pink ruffled shirt. His set was somewhat schizophrenic, as he performed everything from funky R&B, to sweet mellow soul to Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” Several songs were punctuated with his trademark, piercing soul screams.   He encouraged young females in the crowd to dance on stage. Several tattooed hippie chicks eagerly jumped the fence and so did a couple dudes. Jackson enlisted them them to do some pelvic thrusting and dirty dancin’, which of course went over big. Jackson called up a fellow named Adam from the Hideout to sing “Set Me Free” with him. It was a bizarre set full of surprises.

            Harvey Scales (photo) came out, looking like he had been frozen in time, circa the 1980s. His youthful looks and his voice were the best preserved of all. Scales wore a wide-shouldered red suit with black and white shoes, cosmic-looking shades and a fade/flattop hair cut (remember Grace Jones?).  Scales and the Checkmates got everybody dancing with the super-funky ‘70s style tune, “The Yolk.”  “Love-Itis” a song made famous by the J Geils Band was next, followed by an emotion-filled cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You A Little Too Long.”  Scales got down on one knee to croon “I love you” to the ladies and they shouted “I love you, too” back at him. When Scales told the crowd he would cover Johnny Taylor next, I was hoping to hear this skilled singer perform a classic like “Who’s Makin’ Love” or “Turn Back the Hands of Time.” My hopes were dashed when he did “Disco Lady” instead. It was another excuse to call young female dancers on stage to bump and grind, but this time only two made it on stage. It was a waste of Scales’ great voice. He redeemed himself on his final number with “Get Down” a ‘60s style R&B dance number that got the crowd to soul clapping.

I don’t know why, but seeing the Rabbit Factory’s retro revue reminded me of the party scenes in “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”  It was that much fun.


Petrillo Stage

Big Jack Johnson, Jeremy Spencer, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

Mississippi’s Big Jack Johnson dished up a fine set of thunderous, deep Delta and Chicago style blues, as he sat in his chair, wailing away on his vintage guitars. Here’s another man who can make his guitar speak! Backed by his band The Oilers on organ, bass, and drums Johnson displayed his impressive guitar skills. His playing is full of expression, emotion, color, tone and some fine note-bending and picking. As if that wasn’t enough to please the fans, Johnson covered Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” which had them dancing in the aisles.  He has quite a vocal range and can sound like Howlin’ Wolf or Clarence “Frogman” Henry.  Johnson displayed some nice country picking on a down-home version of “That’s Alright, Mama.” I’m sure I’ve never heard a blues artist cover the folk hit “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” but Johnson performed it in his own melodious style. For his final number, the big man got folks boogie-ing to “Shake Your Money-Maker.”

We saw slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer last summer on his comeback tour at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, backed by a smokin’ hot blues band from Norway called The Vikings. It was an intimate and very satisfying show, especially since the group was well-versed in Chicago style blues. The experience of seeing  ex-Fleetwood Mac member Spencer on the large Petrillo outdoor stage, backed by a pickup band from Chicago, was less than satisfying. Spencer wisely chose top local blues players to support him – Dave Herrero on guitar, Brother John Kattke on sax and keyboards, Jimmy Sutton on bass and Marty Binder on drums.  Spencer is a skilled slide player with a delicate touch; still it didn’t come across well on the festival stage. He’s not much of a singer either and he performed way too many slow songs and ballads. It wasn’t until the end of the set, when he turned his band loose on some upbeat Chicago style blues tunes that the audience really paid attention.

Sharon Jones

The stylishly suited, seven-piece Dap-Kings took their places, standing on risers at 45 degree angles to the stage, and warmed up the crowd with a funky instrumental.  This is one hot band, as evidenced by their work on Amy Winehouse’s Grammy-winning CD, Back to Black. After the first song, Sharon Jones made her debut like a racehorse charging out of the gate. She greeted the crowd with her warm-up dance and it was no-holds barred thereafter from this ball-of-fire soul belter. The powerhouse singer’s style ranges from Gladys Knight soulful sweet to James Brown low-down funky. And she dances non-stop, stompin’ in her bare feet all about the stage. After the first few numbers, including “I’m Not Gonna Cry,” and “Don’t Let a Good Man Down,” the barricades went down and the crowd was allowed to stand in front of the stage to cheer on this interactive performer. For “I’ll Give You My Love” she pulled a young man from the crowd to sing to, much to his delight.

Jones left the stage to a cameo appearance by Syl Johnson, Chicago soul singer and brother to bluesman Jimmy Johnson.  He acted quite tipsy and didn’t sing by himself for long. He asked the crowd to help him sing “Anywhere You Want to Go.” He stopped the band in mid-song to switch gears and get some ladies on stage to do the pelvic thrust with him.

Thankfully, Jones retook the stage after Johnson’s antics and demonstrated how to really dance as the mighty Dap-Kings pumped up the beats behind her. As she shouted out each dance, the band switched gears to the appropriate rhythm. “The boogaloo, the pony, the mashed potatoes, the tighten-up, the funky chicken!” Jones displayed her skill like she was auditioning for “Hairspray.”  Then she let audience members up on stage to dance with her.

The mood quieted down slightly for her torch song finale “100 days,100 Nights.” Jones stopped briefly to pay tribute to Koko Taylor and give a shout out to the late legend’s daughter Cookie in the sidelines, where her mom always sat. Jones continued with a bit of “Big Boss Man” to honor Koko, and then finished up with “100 Days.”

It was a fitting and fun finale to an enjoyable, blues-filled weekend in sweet home Chicago.

Copyright, 2009: Chicago Blues Guide


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