Chicago's 18th Annual Blues Festival
June 7 - 10, 2001
Story and Photos by Tony BonyataLast weekend Chicago's 18th annual Blues Festival held court in Grant Park, and despite the fact that some of the biggest names in Chicago blues royalty, such as Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor, weren't present, the 4-day event boasted enough 'old and new school' talent from up and down the Mississippi River to delight thousands of blues fans, some who had traveled from as far as England and Japan to hear this original American art form performed in it's own hometown.
Instead of primarily focusing on Chicago-styled blues, this year's festival ran the gamut of American roots music influenced by the blues, giving a varied overview of the music. From the gut-bucket acoustic Delta moans of Honeyboy Edwards to Chuck Berry's infectious guitar riff that ignited rock n' roll in the '50s, as well as New Orleans' "Queen of Soul" Irma Thomas' sweet, silky vocals and the spirited kick of C.J. Chenier's spicy zydeco music, the meaning of the blues seemed much broader than the simple, yet powerful acoustic folk music that traveled from the poor Mississippi Delta region to the land of opportunity - Chicago.
Rock n' roll legend Chuck Berry, slender and clad in white captain's hat and purple sequined shirt, took center stage on the Petrillo Music Shell Thursday night, and at 74 years old still proved to be a master showman as he pranced, sang and delivered his infamous staccato guitar riff that inspired bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to first pick up their guitars.
In the '50s Berry had an uncanny lyrical ability to incorporate humor and everyday social events into his songs, an ability he still weaves into his music as he sang," I'm just looking for a woman with software that's compatible with mine," behind a sly grin and gritty electric guitar. He then broke into a number of standards such as "Memphis, Tennessee," "Rock and Roll Music," his signature "Johnny B. Goode" and the raucous "Carol," which saw his taunting guitar scrapping against the drummer's chops.
With a "when in Rome..." attitude, Berry slid into a bluesy Muddy Waters cover only to stop the band after the first verse and apologizing, "I wish I could sing like Muddy!"
Earlier that day on the smaller Juke Joint Stage one of last links to the early Delta blues, 85-year old legend Honeyboy Edwards gave a short yet stirring solo performance - one which recalled the raw intensity of Robert Johnson, Son House and Charlie Patton, all early Mississippi bluesman who Honeyboy used to run with in his youth.
Rail-thin and done up in a cool, white suit, 58-year old Son Seals - one of the leading guitar stylists to come out of Chicago's post-'60s blues scene - put on a commanding performance on Sunday with piercing guitar leads that cut like a knife.
Just as the blues migrated north to Chicago in the '40s and '50s, the Blues Fest took it all the way back down to Louisiana, showcasing lively zydeco acts such as C.J. Chenier (son of the late zydeco king, Clifton Chenier) and a tribute to Boozoo Chavis (another legend who passed away just a month ago, who recorded the first zydeco hit "Paper In My Shoe" in 1954). But it was New Orleans' own smiling Irma Thomas, along her taut band The Professionals, that brought the upbeat soul of the Crescent City to the Windy City with a set rich in soul, gospel and R&B influenced music.
Among the star attractions were lesser known talented acts such as Maxwell Street's Fruteland Jackson, Eddy Clearwater, Willie Kent & The Gents and Devil In A Woodpile, a young rootsy outfit with a down-home swing that featured Honeyboy Edwards sitting in on guitar and vocals and bringing a raw electricity to their last few numbers. Many of these acts proved to be the backbone of the festival, winning over casual fans and blues purists alike.
Although the festival could still use more heavy hitters on the bill like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy, it probably isn't worth the risk of turning this free festival - already filled with top-notch, although lesser known acts - into high ticket event.
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