Chicago Blues Festival

Grant Park, Chicago June 10-13  Eddy “The Chief” ClearwaterThe only death anyone was talking about at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival was the passing of Ray Charles on the day that would have been Howlin’ Wolf’s 94th birthday (June 10). Fortunately, over the weekend, many mentioned Charles’ musical contribution without attempting to cover his material. Four days of “What’d I Say” would have been worse than the regular weekend’s “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Mustang Sally” count combined. Two notable exceptions: pianist Ken Saydak’s “This Little Girl Of Mine” (which he recorded on his 1998 album Foolish Man) and festival closer Willie Clayton’s tasteful “(Night Time Is) The Right Time.”

Despite the great musical loss, the festival went on with its annual buffet of everything blues, from jazzy swing to solo acoustic to bar band screechers and everything in between. The solo performances really stood out this year, especially Canadian folk/blues guy Harry Manx, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Saydak and Chicago piano man Aaron Moore.

The Hoosier state was well-represented thanks to the likes of soul man Tad Robinson, acoustic guitarist and TV insurance spokesman Fruteland Jackson and Northern Indiana’s Steepwater Band.

The Howlin’ Wolf day was a satisfying tribute, featuring separate performances from Wolf alumni Eddie Shaw, Detroit Junior, Sam Lay and Little Smokey Smothers. Under-appreciated guitarist Hubert Sumlin headlined on the main stage Thursday night with (go figure) David Johansen on vocals. A skinny, long-haired, harmonica-blowing Johansen was giving off Mick Jagger vibes, especially singing Wolf tunes like “Little Red Rooster.” He does earn bonus points for not imitating the Wolf’s signature raspy vocals. The Midwestern Monsoon that swept though Chicago that night kept this from being a complete success.

Other notable performances include Lonnie Brooks celebrating his 70th birthday with sons/guitarists Ronnie and Wayne. The acoustic tag team of Louisiana guitarist Kenny Neal and Chicago harmonica man Billy Branch. The Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan was in town as was Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Michael Burks and the hip-hop blues of Chris Thomas King.

Plus there’s the annual “Yes, they’re still alive and can still play” summit featuring Homesick James, Honeyboy Edwards and Robert Lockwood Jr. (combined playing years, 270) and a performance from 90-year-old pianist Pinetop Perkins. All up-and-coming blues whippersnappers should be required to watch and hear these men.

It’s always fun seeing Chicago’s Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, this time being backed up by Los Straitjackets. How often are you going to see a 6-foot-something black man wearing an Indian headdress while backed up by a band wearing wrestling masks?

Bulletin: Soulman Otis Clay is the only one allowed to cover Al Green, in this case “Here I Am (Come And Take Me)” and “Love and Happiness.” Got it?

Quote of the festival: Jazzy/ blues singer Barbara Morrison: “If you like me, my name is Barbara Morrison. If you don’t like me, my name is Whitney Houston.” Runner-up: Curvaceous blues singer E.C. Scott on how everyone weighs 95 pounds in their own mind. “I can slide through a keyhole without messing up my hair.”

Bonus points to Scott for punching some Southern soul into Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” And always tip your street musicians.


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