This year’s Chicago Blues Festival started out on a sad note, because many CBF regular musicians have died since last year. Willie Kent, Bonnie Lee, Homesick James, Henry Townsend, Robert Lockwood Jr. and, most recently, Carey Bell all died in the last 12 months.
This year’s lineup was particularly Chicago-heavy and reminded folks that despite the departures, the music is still strong. Guitarist Lurrie Bell and his harmonica-playing brother Steve (sons of Carey Bell), Magic Slim and the Teardrops, the 30th anniversary of Billy Branch and his Sons of Blues, John Primer, Phil Guy (Buddy’s brother) and Jimmy Dawkins were just some of the players representing Chicago.
There were also a number of next-generation players with famous fathers performing this year. Elmore James Jr., Lil’ Howlin’ Wolf, Mighty Joe Young Jr. and Larry Williams (a son of Muddy Waters) will all help carry the blues torch.
Other highlights from the fest included solo and bare bone performances that sounded a lot better and easier to handle, thanks to pianists Aaron Moore, Renauld Patigny, Carl Sonny Leyland and Bob Hall, John Primer — with harmonica player Matthew Skoller — who added a cool breeze to a hot day.
The queen of the blues, Koko Taylor (who just released a new album, Old School, on Alligator), performed a full set this year rather than her regular cameos during other people’s shows.
Singer Johnnie Mae Dunson, age 86 and in a pimped-up wheelchair, belted the blues. Saxophonist Big Jay McNeeley, age 80, also played strong, and Honeyboy Edwards, in his 90s, still played guitar. On the other end, there was a group called the Homemade JamZ Blues Band, featuring three siblings under age 16.
Filmmaker John Sayles (Matewan, Eight Men Out, Lone Star) was in town to promote his new film, The Honeydripper, which deals with an Alabama juke joint in the 1950s. Expect an interview with Sayles in a future issue of NUVO.
The festival closer this year was soul/blues great Bobby Rush. In his 70s, he has the charisma and energy of someone half his age. He can sing, play harmonica and guitar. His songs are laced with double-entendres that are subtle compared with today’s pop and rap. With Rush’s musical talent and stage persona, he was able to pull off a fun show without offending anyone. The Chicago Blues Festival was successful once again and, as always, was quite the warm-up for Indy Jazz Fest this weekend. See you at IJF.