It is very special to have the photos
of Kurt Swanson
for the Chicago Blues News
by Dick Shurman
in BluesArt-Journal. Thank you Kurt !
see more on our BLUES LINK site!
Subject to the whims of my Editors around the world, this will have to be an especially long dispatch because summer always brings lots of outdoor special events. But before we run through those, some other catching-up.
To answer the parting question from the last column, we did survive Wes Race’s 60th birthday weekend in late June, no doubt because its sedateness underscored the fact that somehow everyone is aging (Bob Koester shamed the rest of us comparative youngsters when he and his wife Sue outlasted pretty much all of us Saturday night), though it didn’t quite match the times when Howlin’ Wolf would be having a weak night due to illness (and despite giving his all) and the old people who made up much of his crowd would fall asleep at their tables. We got in a nice night up front at Queen Bee’s and Lil’ Ed plus some excellent barbeque from Honey-One at Rosa’s.
On the club front, Legends has announced that they’re only moving a block north, to the former site of the Hot House and some businesses on the ground floor of the building. They’re shooting for February; it’s great news that there will be not only survival but a lot of continuity. The Jazz Showcase will also relocate very close to Legends on South Dearborn, presumably next year. Among the recent live highlights at Legends was a harp weekend June 1-2, first with Mark Hummel and several of his Harmonica Showcase partners and then Kim Wilson, with much sitting in. On a Thursday night (June 14), Plas Johnson and Red Holloway celebrated Red’s birthday at East Of The Ryan, accompanied by a local organist and drummer. Red was exuberant, both were magnificent, and this kind of music still sounds better on the south side (which East Of The Ryan is), but there isn’t a steady venue there for the main jazz-meets-blues touring acts these days, so this was a rare treat. (In addition to their own recent Bob Porter-produced CD, they lay down a lot of tasty blues on Rhoda Scott’s“From C To Shining C.”)
Jody Williams, who has moved to northwest Indiana and is recovering quickly and well from May back surgery, continues to join Billy Flynn unadvertised for most or all of Billy’s monthly second Saturday nights at Smokedaddy.
That’s probably the most undeservedly generally ignored shot of Chicago blues guitar around these days; the music is always outstanding and of a style too seldom played any more, not to mention by two such masters of it, the food is good, there’s no cover charge and the surroundings are comfortable. It really makes me ponder more than usual how even musical fashions change and what gets missed or lost. Their successful summer tour of Finland (with Billy Boy Arnold) provided some affirmation, at least.
Studio and recording contract activity has included Alligator signing Janiva Magness (I’m excited for both, she’s easy to root for) and recording Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King in Dallas and Michael Burks in Chicago, and Los Angeles guitarist/producer Cadillac Zack Slovinsky is recording Elmore James Jr. for JSP. Delmark filmed DVDs in August with Byther Smith, Little Arthur Duncan and Dave Specter. Lurrie Bell has recorded a CD produced by Matthew Skoller and a nice rhythm section of Felton Crews and Willie Hayes; I think it will be a DIY release. If Lurrie can maintain his awesome recent equilibrium, he has some good days ahead. Buddy Guy recorded an Internet historical tour of Chicago blues sites. Bo Dudley (Oscar Coleman) has issued the very homespun “Oscar Boogie Vol. 2" with support from Eddie C. Campbell, Jesse Scinto, and Bobby Davis.
Fortunately, there aren’t many health bulletins. Eddie Berner, officially recognized as Chicago’s #1 blues fan and a fixture at local events, died after surgery in early September; there was a nice memorial at B.L.U.E.S. on the 16th, though more sadness was added when Big Time Sarah announced that Lacy Gibson (with whom Sarah lives, along with Lacy’s wife) was in intensive care following more major surgery. Little Smokey Smothers has been too ill to work pretty much since his spring California trip. And Eddie C. Campbell reacted to an electric shock onstage in Chile by jerking his head into the mic and knocking out a front tooth.
I want to put in an unsolicited plug for Karen Hanson’s new book Today’s Chicago Blues (Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, www.lakeclaremont.com).
It’s more a consumer’s guide than a work of academic tone, but it’s very well done and full of useful, well-researched information including capsule biographies of many worthies and appraisals of local venues. Eventually it will become a little dated as a tourist’s resource, but for now it’s the single best thing for someone planning a blues pilgrimage to read first and bring (or buy at Jazz Record Mart when you arrive), while being prepared to scout out any more recent developments.
The local list of summer happenings, which goes far beyond the ones I’ll cover, is a serious temptation for traveling (or local) music fans.
The Chicago Blues Festival June 7-10 was blessed with excellent weather and the usual diversity and crowds, as always far too many concurrent sets on the five afternoon stages for one observer to cover with balance. Jeff Konkel did a nice job running the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage, where Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Big T Williams (very evocative of Big Jack Johnson), Zac Harmon and the more-than-just-precocious Homemade Jamz were highlights.
Those who like “Blues Juniors” had plenty at the Crossroads Stage, including Elmore James Jr., Mighty Joe Young Jr., Larry Williams (who had to stop calling himself “Muddy Waters Junior” but has made a big local splash lately with TV news and morning drive-time radio cameos) leading a nice Muddy tribute, and Little Howlin’ Wolf.
At the Front Porch Stage, Lurrie Bell was terrific (as usual lately) giving the first live performances of some of the songs on his forthcoming CD and jamming with his harp-playing brother Steve, up from Mississippi for the occasion. Former local club warriors too seldom seen, brothers Vernon and Joe Harrington and singer-guitarist James Kinds (who lives in Iowa now) turned in a welcome Front Porch set. There was the usual quotient of lively panels; I was privileged to help Wolf’s daughters celebrate his birthday again and be joined for chat by Shorty Gilbert, Jody Williams and in the form of Eddie Shaw, Abb Locke and Willie Young, maybe the owners of the majority of the total onstage time for horn players with Wolf over the years.
The Louisiana Bayou Stage brought rousing sets from pianists Daryl Davis and Henry Gray, who always adds rock-solid quality to Blues Fest.
The Main Stage acts included an especially hot set from Magic Slim (who has since changed drummers to former Tinsley Ellis band member and Mississippian David Sims); Jimmy Dawkins with difficult to follow Nora Jean Brusso and the usual Guitar Army of Billy Flynn, Rich Kirch and Keith Scott; Bobby Rush; the ageless extrovert Big Jay McNeely with Jesse Scinto on baritone; Willie Clayton; Koko Taylor; Irma Thomas and some outstanding commemorations.
BillyBranch organized a Sons of the Blues 30th anniversary reunion including the many distinguished alumni like Lurrie (and Steve) Bell, Carlos Johnson, Carl Weathersby and J.W. Williams plus Vernon Harrington.
A deservedly long Sunnyland Slim tribute showcased Sam Burkhardt, Steve Freund, Barrelhouse Chuck, Big Time Sarah, Deitra Farr and Billy Flynn. A Wolf reunion led by Eddie Shaw also included James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin (whose guitar-bedecked shoes were the year’s fashion highlight, out-ranking Bobby Rush’s super-sized woman’s drawers), Jody Williams, Henry Gray, Abb Locke, Willie Young, Shorty Gilbert and Willie Smith. Needless to say, it combined with bustling clubs to offer an extremely rewarding weekend.
The following weekend brought two days of Blues On The Fox in Aurora, well worthwhile as always with Nick Moss, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Eric Lindell, Tab Benoit, Billy Boy Arnold with Billy Flynn, Honeyboy Edwards and Robert Cray among others. Then it was a whole two weeks to wait for the pre-Fourth of July weekend with Wes’ festivities, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival and Fitzgerald’s American Music Festival. On my day at Fitzgerald’s, Joe Filisko and Eric Noden were a nice change of pace but the day’s highlight was Billy Branch, clearly establishing his Home Bandstand Advantage during an all-out set with Mark Hummel (who had no problem acknowledging Billy’s triumph) and James Harman, whose enjoyment of the day also seemed undiminished. Billy carried the momentum over to join the Holmes Brothers and Marcia Ball later.
July also brought the usual well-done Muddy Waters commemoration in Westmont, this time featuring Larry Williams, Big Bill Morganfield and Muddy’s son Joe onstage together to cap a soul-soothing 2 hour evocation of the spirit of Muddy’s music.
I was out of town (more about that later) at the end of July for Eric Clapton’sCrossroads Guitar Festival; by all accounts Johnny Winter’s “Highway 61 Revisited” with Derek Trucks was one of the day’s peaks and I await the promised DVD in November. Johnny also sounded superb at House Of Blues (with new drummer Tony Beard); his personal and musical comeback continues to hit ever higher and now lofty ground and I told him he’s “putting some mustard on it” again. On August 2, Dave Specter graced the Pritzker Bandshell at Millennium Park (a great place to hear music) with his own jazzy picking and compositions, a kicking four piece horn section, Billy Branch (who’s been everywhere lately, also doing a “Blues Meets Hip-Hop” summit), organist Chris Foreman, Sharon Lewis’s sincere self-disclosure connecting especially well with the audience, and finally Jimmy Johnson in top form making it seem impossible that he’s closing in on his 80th birthday.
On the 23rd I drove through the devastation from Chicago’s most violent storm in a long time to the Shedd Aquarium to hear (within reason, subject to the terrible acoustics) my favorite local soul jazz-blues combo, Henry Johnson’s Organ Express with their high quality blues-rooted musicianship and a repertoire from Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, Stanley Turrentine, Henry’s longtime employer and major vocal influence Joe Williams et al. When I’d gone to see them in July at their regular Wednesday gig at Pops at State & Ohio, I’d also gotten totally soaked during the short walk (before taking a taxi the last two blocks, worth every penny), only to find the show cancelled during the first song when the roof started leaking from the rain. I clearly need to expect the worst from Mother Nature when I go hear them, but they’re worth it. They told me they’d picked up where they left off and finished the song they’d had to stop (Jimmy Smith’s “T-Bone Steak”) the following week. The Jazz Festival didn’t have a lot of blues on the program; I couldn’t catch Erwin Helfer and Skinny Williams together, but was glad to hear Ernestine Anderson with Frank Wess and enjoyed famed funk drummer Clyde Stubblefield’s contribution to organist Dan Trudell’s set.
I missed B.B. King and Buddy Guy’s Ravinia appearances but have heard good things about B.B.’s recent shows.
This weekend I’m missing the second Paramount commemoration festival in Grafton, Wisconsin and tomorrow is a very promising Albert Ammons Centennial Commemoration at a church in the Loop.
Wow, I actually got through all the local stuff I can remember; the program described above is my excuse for any destroyed brain cells that made me forget other events and artists worthy of note.
But I can’t sign off without at least a long paragraph about my first time at the Pocono Blues Festival. The hospitality (except for one slight lapse by the Weather Committee) and lineup were both immaculate and it was obvious why this is one of the most highly regarded blues events. The artists were clearly inspired by the occasion and the returnees happy to be back; Jody Williams and Otis Clay seemed quite moved by their lifetime achievement awards. Andrew Jones, Big George Jackson with a band including Minneapolis keyboard stalwart Bruce McCabe, Deitra Farr, Mark Hummel (who drafted Billy Flynn from Deitra’s excellent band to help him showcase Lazy Lester and Billy Boy Arnold; Lester especially was at his best and focused on his strengths), Phillip Walker, Jimmy Johnson (who drove from Detroit with his band when their flight was cancelled), Boo Boo Davis, Guy Davis, Irma Thomas, the Lee Boys’ Sunday kickoff, Guy Davis, Harmonica Shah (nice to see drummer R.J. Spangler), Marva Wright’s set with Vasti Jackson and Benny Turner (till the rain stopped it), Jody doing a lot of originals he doesn’t often do live, and finally Otis and the Platinum Band wrapping it up in style made for a great two days (preceded by an inaugural evening I couldn’t attend). Michael Cloeren and his staff deserve their many plaudits for putting this together. I shall return.
And that goes for this column. Happy reading and a good rest of the year to all!