Chicago Blues Tour, a pub crawl of blues lounges on Chicago's south and west sides. He's created a curriculum of blues history called Blues University® that's been taught at Newberry Library, which is currently being adapted for e-learning.

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Friday, December 15

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Feature Thu Jun 07 2007

2007 Chicago Blues Festival Preview— Reunions, Guitar Gods, and Living History

One of the downsides of having the largest free blues fest in the world is that there's hardly enough time to enjoy it all, and as frequently as not, scheduling conflicts force you choose among several great acts. This year's fest continues the trend in recent years to balance emerging local acts and regional stars at the afternoon stages, reserving the evening's main stage at the Petrillo Band Shell for national and top-tier home-grown talent. If you treat the festival as a musical adventure, and prepare like you're going on a 4-day camping trip, you can pack in a lot of music. Even if you work downtown, you can get in some serious bluesing at lunch and after work.

There are three main rules when it comes to the Chicago Blues Festival:

1. Don't Drive Downtown

The festival grounds are easily accessible by public transit. You can call the RTA travel and information service at (312) 836-7000 for help planning your trip. There's a communal atmosphere to the crowds, and at the end of the day, you'll be glad you didn't drive, especially if you partake of adult beverages.

2. Be Prepared for All Kinds of Weather

Remember: in Chicago if you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes. Many times I've been laughed at for carrying suntan lotion and a sweatshirt as well as an umbrella, but these precautions have paid off more than once. This weekend's weather forecast features a smörgåsbord of wind, rain, and temperature conditions, so don't say I didn't warn you. You can get a reasonably good hour-by-hour forecast at weather.com.

3. Plan Before Buying Food and Beverage Tickets

The only thing more aggravating than paying $1.50 for a dollar's worth of tickets is getting stuck with tickets you don't need at the end of the festival. Take a quick stroll past the food stands, which line Jackson Street, and get an idea of what you're actually going to eat and drink, and note the number of tickets for each item. If you can, eat in the late afternoon, when lines are short and before stuff starts running out (except for the beer — if you have the cash, it's always in good supply).

Now that you're prepared for a little blues safari, let's review this year's schedule, which you can download along with a handy map from the festival website, www.chicagobluesfestival.us. The festival runs from about noon each day until around 10pm, so there's plenty of action spread over about four square blocks, with over 70 acts performing at five different stages. There's also a tent devoted to interviews with artists, authors and other blues luminaries, which is a great place to park for lunch or to get some shade. Thursday is generally the least crowded day, so if you're anti-social or claustrophobic, that's your day. Friday usually features the after-work crowd, with Saturday and Sunday usually wall-to-wall all day.

The 2007 Chicago Blues Festival runs from Thursday, June 7th through Sunday June 10th at Grant Park, Chicago

Thursday, June 7th highlights:

Super Percy

12 noon, Juke Joint Stage (Columbus between Jackson and Monroe)

I've raved about Super Percy's Friday-night sets at Lee's Unleaded on Chicago's south side for a while now. He's an energetic singer whose band slips easily from soul chestnuts to raw blues to new originals that fuse soul, rock and funk, kinda like what Prince would sound like if he had pursued his blues instincts from the Black Album. It's stripped-down alt-blues that pleases both white and black audiences, traditionalists and modernists alike. Well worth lunchtime look.


Hoochie-Coochie Boys: Muddy's Side Men

4pm, Gibson Guitars Crossroads Stage (Jackson at LSD)

While I'm not a big fan of reunions in general, Muddy Waters' bands, like Frank Zappa's and John Mayall's, seemed to just drown in talent. Good musicians flocked to play with Waters the way great basketball players did to MJ. The group assembled here have all had successful careers as bandleaders since Muddy died, and they're going to be fronted by Larry Williams, one of Muddy's sons, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his father both physically and vocally, frequently appearing around town as "Muddy Waters Jr.", a moniker that would be a gimmick if it weren't so hauntingly accurate. Don't miss this one, it's going to be a great set of classic '50s Chicago blues.


Jimmy Dawkins

7:20pm, Petrillo Band Shell (Jackson and Columbus)

Dawkins is one of the progenitors of the West Side guitar style, a stripped-down and hyped-up trio format that was dictated by West Side economics, but later copied by the gods of power-trio rock, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Dawkins still retains his mastery of tone and rhythm, without succumbing to the post-modern excesses of many of his peers, who sometimes seem to be parodying themselves, doing versions of their own songs as done by rock stars with far less restraint. On a good night, Dawkins provides a textbook example of how to use tension and release to make a few notes sound like a thousand.

JDawkinsBLUES.JPG

Jimmy Dawkins at B.L.U.E.S.

Friday, June 8th highlights:

Lurrie Bell, Billy Branch's Sons of Blues

4pm, Front Porch Stage (Columbus just south of Jackson), 7:15pm Petrillo Band Shell (Jackson and Columbus)

Blues guitar is an under appreciated art form, in particular because there are many wannabes and few organic masters like Lurrie Bell. He's still a young man by blues standards, but he's been playing since he was teenager, and he's internalized the music's form because he's part of a family that's practically blues royalty. Lurrie's playing is relaxed and flows like a river, and when he's inspired his soloing can reach acrobatic proportions. Even when he's strumming a simple rhythm, his rich baritone propels songs forward with an almost primordial wail. He'll be playing with his own band at the Front Porch stage, and then as part of another great reunion (go figure), with Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues, a band he helped form as a young phenom in the late '70s. Harmonica player Branch learned his craft from veteran legends like Big Walter Horton and Junior Wells in the '70s, but he's not a slavish imitator of tradition, pushing the classics in new directions and penning some memorable originals. He focuses on harmonics rather than squonk, so the Sons have always been about melody and ensemble playing, pulling off the feat of being one of the most consistent bands around, despite frequent personnel changes necessitated by successful solo careers of members like Bell and guitarist Carl Weathersby. This is a band that is likely to have you singing along without even realizing you're doing it.

LurrieBell_WDFestival.jpg

Lurrie Bell (photo by Jennifer Wheeler).

Saturday, June 9th, highlights:

Alvin Youngblood Hart

3pm, Juke Joint Stage

Alvin Hart has released a series of stunningly beautiful recordings, which refute the idea that blues has a limited range, using the blues framework as a challenge, it would seem. While he's very capable of playing classic Delta blues, he's talented enough to take blues forms and force them to inhabit new spaces. His guitar playing is intricate and ethereal, sometimes sounding like a New Age interpretation of blues, other times echoing the finger-picking aesthetics of masters like Mississippi John Hurt. Hart's work has continued to grow, and it's always interesting in ways that make you re-examine the definition of blues.

Alvin_Youngblood_Hart.jpg

Alvin Youngblood Hart

Sunday, June 10th, highlights:

Cephas and Wiggins, Sunnyland Tales

1:30pm, Front Porch Stage, Route 66 Roadhouse Tent

Guitarist John Cephas and harmonica player Phil Wiggins prove the point that a blues radio host once made to me: "if you want the blues to rock, take it acoustic". The duo plays in the Piedmont style, a syncopated swirl of rhythm that is so different from the Chicago/Delta style that I've gotten into arguments with neophytes who insist it isn't blues. This is a truly "folk" act, whose performances don't blast from the stage, they insidiously weave their way out into the crowd, drawing the audience in. Wiggins in particular has a sharp sense of humor that is evident in both his playing and stage patter, and Cephas has an avuncular charm that makes you want to get him an ice tea and ask him to tell stories. If it's stories you seek, however, I encourage you to visit the Route 66 tent to listen to stories about the raconteur prince of Chicago blues, Sunnyland Slim, whose life and deeds practically define the ethos of Chicago blues itself. On hand to talk about his life will be longtime band mate Sam Burckhardt and David "Honeyboy" Edwards, one of the last of the itinerant Delta bluesmen.

cephas_and_wiggins1.jpg

Cephas & Wiggins (photo by Tom Radcliffe/Point of View Studios).


David "Honeyboy" Edwards

4pm, Louisiana Bayou Station and Social Club

Honeyboy Edwards is a living archive of history, and while many historians seem most interested in the fact that he was a pal of the iconic Delta bluesman, Robert Johnson, they seem to overlook his own musical skills. He's one of the last country-blues masters of improvisation, a skill more often associated with jazz today. I have seen him play dozens of times, and he never plays a song the same way twice, in the true folk tradition. He still uses "floating lyrics", a technique similar to that of troubadours, using stock phrases and characters to build a story, and he further intensifies the experience by avoiding 12-bar forms. In other words, he plays it the way he feels it that day, that minute. While the pyrotechnics of his playing have suffered with age, the intensity has not, and that's a tribute to his experience as a performer, honed during many years as a traveling busker in the Jim Crow south, where if you didn't play well, there could be dire consequences. His version of the classic Delta blues song "Catfish" still sends chills down my spine with its simplicity and directness.

HONEYB_1.JPG

Honeyboy Edwards (photo by Jeff Diamond).


The Disciples Playing for Sunnyland, Tribute to Wolf

5pm, 7:15 pm, Petrillo Band Shell

Gosh. Two more reunion bands, and two more winners. Maybe I'll have to change my mind about these things. While bawdy-soul superstar Bobby Rush closes out the night, for my money the peak of the whole festival will be these two sets.

First of all, they feature two idiosyncratic guitarists who are endlessly interesting to listen to, Billy Flynn in the Sunnyland set, and the genius Hubert Sumlin in the Wolf set. Flynn's always played a sweet and snappy guitar that gives you just enough solo to make you want more, and Sumlin — my gosh, he's the author of what I consider the densest and greatest blues guitar solo of all time (on Howlin' Wolf's version of Willie Dixon's "Hidden Charms"). It's a 45-second burst of passionate multi-tasking that always sounds like it's longer than the song's 2:50 running time (download it on iTunes, you won't be sorry).

The Sunnyland set features rock-solid Bob Stroger, the best classic-blues bass man ever, and Barrelhouse Chuck, who earned his chops by embedding himself with Sunnyland and Little Brother Montgomery, arguably the two greatest Chicago piano masters.

The Wolf set is an even bigger cavalcade of stars, including James Cotton, saxmen Eddie Shaw and Abb Locke, guitarist Jody Williams, and pianist Henry Gray, all of whom contributed to some of the most iconoclastic and subversive blues songs ever as sidemen for Wolf's classic Chess sides. They are going to make it a hard act to follow for Bobby Rush to close out the festival.

eddie_shaw.jpg

Eddie Shaw.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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