Smokestack Lightning Strikes
the 2010 Chicago Blues Festival

Text and Photos by TIM HOLEK

The most surprising thing I noted while attended this festival in 2007 was the increased number of Chicago artists on the bill. Due to the economy and a reduced budget, that trend continued at the twenty-seventh annual Chicago Blues Festival (CBF) held June 11 – 13 in Grant Park. The festival’s budget hasn’t been the only thing that has shrunk. Beginning in 2009, it was downsized from a four-day event to a three-day event.

Since its inception in 1984, the CBF has grown to become the largest free blues festival in the world. It attracts a wide-range of blues fans – from the least enthusiastic to the most ardent – from all over the U.S. and Canada, and as far away as Italy, Germany, Poland, Holland, and Japan. More than 60 national and local blues entertainers were showcased via five stages. This year the Juke Joint stage was elevated. Sure that took away some of the authenticity of feeling like a juke, but at least the performers could be seen by festival goers.

New this year was the Blues Village, which was sponsored and programmed by the Windy City Blues Society (WCBS). Other local blues nonprofits (Chicago Blues Museum, Maxwell Street Foundation, Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, Koko Taylor’s Celebrity Foundation, etc) participated in the village by having a booth where information was distributed and memberships were solicited. The WCBS stage (well actually, it was more like a tent) made its debut within the village where the WCBS proudly showcased local artists such as: Kilborn Alley Blues Band, Lil’ Ed & Mike Garrett, and the Joe Moss Band.

Each year the festival chooses a theme, and this year the theme was a celebration of Howlin’ Wolf’s Centennial. Wolf, along with Muddy Waters, ruled the Chicago blues scene during its 1950s peak. Chester Burnett was born in West Point, Mississippi on June 10, 1910. He didn’t begin recording until the age of 41 at which time an instant hit Moanin’ At Midnight was born. Wolf died January 10, 1976. The festival was dedicated to him, and many performers included his songs in their sets.

Having thoroughly enjoyed his newest CD Burnin’ Love, on Friday I caught Dave Weld’s raucous set in its entirety. In the early ’70s, Weld gigged regularly with the surviving members of Hound Dog Taylor’s band. Later that same decade, Weld had the opportunity to play with many Chicago blues greats while holding a position in the house band at Eddie Shaw’s 1815 Club. During that period, Weld fell under the assistance of Chicago slide guitarist J.B. Hutto.

In 1988, Weld formed his own band, the Imperial Flames, and has been performing with them ever since. On the minor chorded, Nelson Algren-inspired Ramblin’, Weld expressed his mixed emotions toward the city, Chicago, where he lives. During the tune he also sang about the problem of trying to make it in his hometown. His brown-eyed partner Monica Myhre was very spirited on Sweet Shiny Brown Eyes. Throughout, Weld’s slide guitar was wicked and rocking. Other songs performed included Walkin’ The Dog, She’s Mine, and Listen To Mama. In the spirit of J.B. Hutto, the be freckled Weld jumped up and down and crawled around on his knees without missing a note.

Like many blues artists of his generation, 73-year-old Jimmy Dawkins was born in Mississippi. For more than a half century, Chicago has been his home. Dawkins, who was dressed in black and wore an army-style cap, was backed by an all-star Chicago blues band featuring Billy Flynn on guitar. In all, there were three guitarists on stage at the same time. Together, they rocked hard while Dawkins played multifaceted solos which were sharp-biting. It was an extraordinary set of tormenting blues and blistering guitar. Joining Dawkins was James Yancy Jones, AKA Tail Dragger, who was born almost 70 years ago in Altheimer, Arkansas. He was a Howlin’ Wolf fan before moving to Chicago in 1966. Once there, Tail Dragger started to hang out and sit in with Wolf. It was Wolf who christened Jones with his stage name. Jones’ songs all followed the 12 bar format, and his lyrics didn’t have much to do with anything. Tail Dragger’s vocals weren’t too diverse and they didn’t sound pretty, but they did bare a striking resemblance to Howlin’ Wolf. While decked out in a white cowboy hat and bowtie, Tail Dragger used his explosive stage presence to work the crowd into a frantic funk.

One of many highlights was the Howlin’ Wolf Tribute with Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang plus Jody Williams, Sam Lay, Henry Gray, Abb Locke, Corky Siegel, and Hubert Sumlin. It was one of the best Wolf tributes, and there have been many at this festival over the years. As a sideman, singer, bandleader, songwriter, arranger, producer and club owner, tenor saxophonist Shaw has been a dominating force on the Chicago blues scene for five decades. At his side was his son Vaan, who was dressed in white overalls and performed guitar gymnastics on a guitar that featured three necks.

Many Wolf covers were played like Howlin’ For My Darlin’ and most were arranged as 1950s-styled, Chicago house-rockin’ boogies. At the center of the party was Shaw’s expressive sax. Shaw’s career with Wolf began in 1958. Sumlin became Wolf’s lead guitarist back in 1949. Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and others have cited Sumlin as an inspiration and influence on their work. Williams was a staple on Chess recordings from the early 50s through the mid-60s. He played spiraling guitar on Howlin’ Wolf, Billy Boy Arnold and Bo Diddley classics. Gray joined Wolf’s band in ’56 and became one of the city’s top pianists during the glory years of the blues. The 85-year-old unassuming gentleman pounded out swampy blues. Locke has literally played sax for all the blues greats. Lay, one of the most celebrated blues drummers, performed guitar for the entire set. In 1957, he began his drumming career and soon became Little Walter’s sticks man. He now works mostly as a solo acoustic guitarist. All the musicians except Sam Lay were featured in solos during the songs. Rounding things out on drums was Tim Taylor (son of Eddie Taylor).

Another main attraction was the reunion of James Cotton and Matt Guitar Murphy. They were both former sidemen and band mates of Wolf. As early as 1948, Murphy was playing with Wolf. Murphy was also Cotton’s guitarist in the early to mid ’70s. Murphy is on a comeback trail after suffering a stroke in 2003. At an early age, Tunica, Mississippi-born James Cotton fell under the trance of Sonny Boy Williamson II. In 1954, Cotton was appointed as Muddy Waters harpist. This gig lasted for the next 12 years. Dressed in red and black, Cotton hit the stage and turned it to flames within seconds. He played freight-train harp and Murphy performed teasing guitar solos on standards such as Blow Wind Blow and Don’t Start Me Talking.

On Saturday afternoon, Nora Jean Wallace was absolutely brilliant. Her band was solid. She was discovered by Jimmy Dawkins in 1985, and he immediately asker her to join his band. You could see and hear why as she took control of her raging set and seismically shifted the audience. Wallace was born and raised in Greenwood, Mississippi. She has a voice as powerful as a locomotive engine. Her colossal voice is as hefty as her girth, as deep as Karen Carroll’s, and as growl-like as Bonnie Lee’s. Throughout, Wallace sang up a hurricane on tunes about her home state and her first love. She looked like a fluffy cumulus cloud in her sharp white dress.

Seventy-three-year-old Andre Williams announced whoever booked him during the day (and not the evening) didn’t know his show was worthy of an evening timeslot, and then he flipped them the bird. Backing him were a hot band of rock and R&B guys and two burlesque dancers. Williams has had a long and varied career, which has included being a ’50s Detroit doo-wopper, an early Motown Records recruit, and a ’60s Chicago A and R man. He struggled with substance abuse in the ’80s, got his act together, and began a comeback in the late ’90s. His latest CD, That’s All I Need chronicles his personal demons, habits, and hopes.
The perfectly attired showman performed signature lewd soul-rock tunes including his 1956 single Bacon Fat and others from that area such as Jail Bait and The Greasy Chicken which reflected his coarse and hardened persona.

Bobby Parker couldn’t resist playing his most famous song from 1961 Watch Your Step. To the surprise of many, he had minimal problems with his amplifier on Saturday evening.
Usually amp problems – or simply tinkering with his amp to get the perfect sound – haunt his live performances. Parker hasn’t had much chart success, but he has been a huge influence on others such as Carlos Santana. Parker is a DC-based bluesman, who in the 1950s, played rock ’n’ roll guitar behind Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and The Everly Brothers. He played corrosive guitar solos, roamed the stage, especially the left side of it, yet failed to display any stage presence. Parker’s vocals, which included James Brown-like screams, weren’t powerful nor did they contain a lot of range.

The festival’s finest moment came during the outstanding performance of Chicago Blues: A Living History, which featured performances of Chicago blues from 1940 to the present. The super group paid homage to the originators and the sound creators of Chicago blues including Sonny Boy Williamson I and II, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker, and Junior Wells.

Together on the same stage at the same time were two generations of Chicago's greatest living traditionalists. The Living History Band was comprised of guitarist Billy Flynn, bassist Felton Crews, drummer Kenny Smith, keyboardist Johnny Iguana, harpist Matthew Skoller, and special guests guitarist Carlos Johnson and singer Mike Avery.

Billy Boy Arnold is best known as one of the leading founders of the electric Chicago blues sound of the 1950s as well as a major influence on the British blues artists of the '60s.

Billy Branch was born in Chicago and was raised in Los Angeles. He returned to Chicago in the summer of '69 to study at the University of Illinois. During those years he was first introduced to the blues. Lurrie Bell was raised in a Chicago household that was biologically immersed in the blues since the man of the house was legendary harmonica master Carey Bell. As a former guitarist for Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Magic Slim, John Primer is beyond doubt "The Real Deal". He was strumming guitar by 8 years of age.
As a young boy, Primer first appeared on stage at the local Baptist church, and went on to play at house parties and fish frys in and around his hometown of Camden, Mississippi. He migrated to Chicago in 1963 at the age of 18.

The harmonious ensemble performed most of the CD that bears their name, and Primer was the most sharp-dressed musician of the lot. Arnold did a boogie-flavored I Wish You Would, Branch was as dazzling as the colour of his bright shirt on Hoodoo Man Blues, Primer’s Sugar Sweet was gregarious while Bell’s desperate singing and stinging guitar on My Love Will Never Die signified pain. It was good to see that he is no longer sporting the disheveled look of a couple years ago. Johnson’s guitar solos were searing and Branch proved to be a harmonica virtuoso.

On the final day of the festival, Guitar Shorty’s muscle blues were as loud as his burgundy and black shirt. Houston-born and Florida-raised David Kearney AKA Guitar Shorty has been in the music business for five decades. He played alongside Ray Charles for a year at the age of 16. A year later, he recorded a single for Cobra Records under the direction of Willie Dixon. Then he was enticed away to play with Guitar Slim in New Orleans. He is known for his onstage gymnastics such as somersaults, back flips, and headstands. None of those were observed during the part of his performance that I caught. However, I did witness him playing aggressive blues with years of pent-up frustration that exploded via a fierce attitude. The songs were savage and his on-the-verge-of-distortion screeching lead guitar was hard and heavy.

Bobby Rush is a previous festival headliner and is still headline material. This year he was given a 2:00 PM timeslot on the festival’s smallest stage. Still, Rush was his ever-charismatic self. He leaped and leered throughout his sassy set. It was visually entertaining and musically satisfying. Being a natural performer allowed Rush to command the audience. Heavy beats and funky rhythms were present on regular repertoire songs like Hoochie Man and Hen Pecked. Each song told a story, which gave Rush a chance to use his clever oratory skills.

Other impressive performers included Mary Lane, a staple of the west side blues music scene, and her excellent band which included Rockin’ Johnny. There wasn’t time to catch Café R&B, Big George Brock, Johnny Rawls, and others. The newcomers that I did see, i.e., Grady Champion, will not be remembered for their originality despite being flamboyant crowd-pleasers.
Singer/pianist Bobby Dixon, son of legendary Willie Dixon, strutted across the stage like a rubber-legged rooster yet failed to display any individuality. What I liked the most were the older artists and the middle-aged artists who performed old-school blues like the older artists.

Compared to previous festivals, this year there was a lack of big name headliners. So the main attraction was the entertainment on the side stages, which included the best of Chicago’s living blues artists. Bill Dahl and David Whiteis accurately wrote in the Chicago Reader, “A day at this year’s festival is very much like the kind of blues-club crawl that people from all over the world still come to Chicago to experience.” 

Kudos to Veronica Resa and Barry Dolins for a very professionally-organized festival that featured a lot of real Chicago blues to offer attendees.
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