Review and Photos by Tony BonyataThe warm temperatures may have been a bit much for some during the 19th Annual Chicago Blues Festival last weekend, but it wasn't solely Mother Nature's fault as blues acts, both young and old, were as much to blame for keeping things hot for the hundreds of thousands that flooded into Chicago's lakefront.
Although this year's line-up wasn't quite as strong as in recent year's, there was still enough great music (all for free, mind you) that made for another successful 4-day festival. This particular event is the world's largest free blues festival, so it's no wonder that people from as far off as Japan, Australia and Ireland made the pilgrimage to the Windy City to see and hear a little of what, musically, helped make this city's shoulders so big.
One of the most anticipated artists of the festival this year was early rock 'n' roller Bo Diddley. Diddley, at 73, was reunited onstage by Chicago harp player Billy Boy Arnold and guitarist Jody Williams, both old musical friends that played with Diddley in his youth. Williams, although out of the music business for the past 35 years, seemed happy to be back in the limelight as he ran through a few of his own numbers backed by Diddley on rhythm guitar. Arnold, armed with electric guitar and harmonica delivered a rather lackluster version of his legendary number "I Wish You Would," which was later covered by Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds and David Bowie, before stepping it up a bit on a song from his last album, "Bad Luck Blues." Diddley, in black hat and shades along with his trademark rectangular shaped electric guitar, finally took center stage with his own songs such his signature number, "Hey Bo Diddley." During his short 20 minute set, Diddley showed flashes of his trademark 'shave 'n' a haircut, two bits' rhythm that influenced early '60s British rocks acts such as The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones and The Who, but unfortunately the band never picked up enough steam to keep things rolling.
Keeping things more real in the blues tradition was a great performance from Delta bluesman Honeyboy Edwards and Homesick James Williamson who shared the same stage but didn't actually perform together. Backed by Steve Arvey and Jon McDonald, Edwards ran through harrowing versions of his unique style of Delta blues. "I am the blues!," Homesick James declared before pointing back to his younger accompaniments. "These guys picked up where I left off." When Homesick, now in his early '90s, sat down with guitar in hand, the band picked up the rhythm a bit as this legend tore into biting leads along with his own devilish slide guitar. It was the mesmerizing performances of these two oldest bluesmen featured at the Blues Festival this year that reminded lovers of deep blues why they were here in the first place.
John Brim, another elder blues statesman who recorded for Chess Records in the '50s, celebrated his 80th birthday at the festival as his backing band brought out a birthday cake and broke into a heartfelt version of "Happy Birthday." The frail, yet crisply dressed Brim smiled before unsuccessfully blowing out the candles. Probably due to his age, Brim didn't play guitar, letting his rousing backing band, the Chicago All-Stars, pick up the slack. Brim, nonetheless, still managed to inject a little vocal magic into songs such as his signature "Ice Cream Man," which the rock act Van Halen later covered on their debut album in the late '70s.
The theme of this year's festival was in honor of the late Chicago blues giant Muddy Waters. And not surprisingly, it was the acts that had the closest ties to Muddy that stole the festival's thunder. Although he barely knew his father, Muddy's own son Big Bill Morganfield, crisply dressed in blue suit and black derby, gave a meaty performance that ran through not only his daddy's great songs such as "The Same Thing" and "Got My Mojo Working," but his own work as well. Both Morganfield's raucous slide guitar on his flame red Gibson and deep baritone voice, which hearkened back to his father's, immediately won the hearts of this hometown blues crowd.
If there was one act not to miss this year, however, it was the Muddy Waters Alumni Association, which featured players in Waters' old bands. Led by guitarist and vocalist John Primer, along with pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarist Luther Johnson, bassist Calvin "Fuzz" Jones, drummer and vocalist Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and featuring the talents of two legendary harp players, Carey Bell and James Cotton, this band of elder statesmen turned out to be the heart and soul of this year's fest. As many younger blues acts throughout the weekend ran through flashy uptempo blues that lacked the true feeling and passion of the blues, this group, with an average age of 67, helped bring the spirit of their former band leader to the forefront of the festival. Tearing through smoking versions of "I Been Troubled," "Mannish Boy," "Forty Days and Forty Nights" and "She's Nineteen Years Old," which was used for the theme for this year's 19-year old festival, these musicians locked into tight, unencumbered versions that would have done their bossman proud. Almost exactly 19 years after his death, with the help of his own blood and bandmates highlighting this four-day fest, Muddy's mojo was still hard at work .
Big Bill Morganfield
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