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Saturday, December 16

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Transmission
« Consider Yourself Served Spanish for 100's New Direction »

Concert Tue Jun 12 2007

Chicago Blues Fest Day 4: Reviews

Sunday was by far the strongest day of this year's festival, featuring a wide variety of styles and some of the biggest draws. Since most of those draws were aging veterans, when I looked up at circling birds I often was relieved to see that they were only seagulls and not vultures. It was a day to enjoy the gritty showmanship of old-school acts, at the same time musing about how their shoes will be filled.

During a 1-hour set at the Front Porch, Cephas & Wiggins showed that revivalists don't need to be museum exhibits, with a vibrant set of energetic songs in the true folk tradition, keeping the audience involved with hand-claps and dancing. Phil Wiggins just seems to keep getting better as a harmonica player, with several torrid solos in this set. Since they play Piedmont style, which is syncopated rhythmically, the harp is pretty much playing on every beat, which means literally breathing through the harp and takes an impressive amount of breath control to pull off. It was good to see how well this duo has managed to not only continue the tradition of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, but also update it and give it new life.

I ducked out on that set to catch a rare solo performance by Bobby Rush. This stripped-down set at the Juke Joint stage revealed just how polished an entertainer he really is. Alternating between an electric guitar and a harmonica to accompany his gloriously emotive voice, Rush made the set feel intimate despite being crowded by over 1,000 fans surrounding the tiny stage. Frequently singing a cappella, he emphasized the storytelling aspects of his persona in a slightly different way than his bawdy full-band shows (more on that later). When he grabbed the harmonica and a mike with a long cord to wander into the crowd singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as a set-closer, his warmth and genuine affection for his fans shone through. This set was by far the most revelatory and just plain fun of the entire festival, and although I’ve never been a big fan of Rush, I grudgingly decided to stay for his full-band set that would close out the festival.

I headed back to the Front Porch with foreboding, where harmonica player James Cotton was now in full swing, despite recent illness that left him unable to sing. This is still one of the best bands in the business, with some very nice slide and solo work by southpaw guitarist Tom Holland. Cotton proved that he could still blow like a tornado, with the heavy tone that has been his trademark. He powered the band through a series of classic Chicago blues, leaving little doubt about the status of his health. It would have been interesting to see a battle of the harps between him and Wiggins (not to mention Billy Branch, who appeared Friday night), because of the broadly different aesthetics of their playing. This is one area where the younger generation has picked up the gauntlet, with relative youngsters like Steve Bell (who played here Friday with his older brother Lurrie) clearly bringing new life to the instrument.

Next up was David “Honeyboy” Edwards, one of a dwindling few “heritage” acts that remain one of the core attractions of the blues festival circuit. I’m really not going to critique the performance of a 92-year-old first-generation blues legend, except to note that one would hope that some revivalists would come along and do for Delta blues what Cephas & Wiggins have done for the Piedmont style – so far, there are a lot of imitators, but no one from the younger generations has managed to channel the improvisational genius of itinerant bluesmen like Edwards.

At the main stage, the two sets that began the evening ("Disciples of Sunnyland Slim", and "Tribute to Howlin' Wolf") had me feeling positive about the future. I noted that young drummer Kenny Smith (son of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith) was working yet another set in the fest, and someone in the press noted Smith said it was his 16th set of the festival. When a young drummer is good enough to play with that many veterans in different styles, it’s a badge of true honor, as drummers are the lifeblood of any good blues band. Guitar seems to also be in good hands, as Billy Flynn and Steve Freund, put in solid and supple work that demonstrated how to play great guitar with the least notes necessary, a trait shared by few of the younger guitarists on the circuit today (Dave Specter, Lurrie Bell, and Chainsaw Dupont come to mind). Barrelhouse Chuck was practically the second coming of Sunnyland Slim, his mentor, in a too-brief portion of the set. This tribute set was pristine and disciplined musically, with rock-solid bass by veteran Bob Stroger, but the only drawback was that it lacked the punch that would have been provided by a strong showman on vocals, and guest vocal appearances by Deitra Farr and Big Time Sarah weren’t long enough to have the sustained energy of their club sets.

The next set feted the greatest showman of them all, Howlin’ Wolf, and featured most of the great musicians who created his classic hits (notably absent was drummer Sam Lay). With no possible way to replicate Wolf’s over-the-top stage show, this set relied heavily on the swirling 3-sax horn section to drive the action. Despite some forceful contributions from special guest James Cotton, the show didn’t really start until saxist Eddie Shaw stepped to the mike to sing accompanied by the genius guitar of Hubert Sumlin, whose signature asymmetrical guitar licks lit a fire underneath the remainder of the set. Still, as brilliant as this set full of veteran grit was, it nonetheless begged the question – who will ever be able to fill Howlin’ Wolf’s shoes as an outrageously theatrical performer?

The festival’s final act, Bobby Rush, is exactly the kind of outrageous stage show that once was the trademark of the Wolf or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the kind of act that people end up talking about the next day at work. It has become scarce in the blues world in recent years, but Rush does his best to gain the audience’s disbelief.

Here was Bobby Rush, in all his salacious glory, all dressed in white, flanked by spangly big-booty women, spinning and sliding around the stage, mike in hand, like a leering Phil Donahue, asking the girls, “Do you want some?” (to which the predictably saucy answer was simply ‘yes’). He’s a blue standup comic with a charcoal-filtered voice. Lascivious doesn’t begin to describe his show, which is like a series of hip-thrusts and lap-dances with songs wrapped around them. When he kicked into a harmonica solo midway through the set, the comparison to Wolf seemed even more apt. If his singing weren’t as strong as it is, the R-rated humor would be a gimmick, but the band is musically as tight as a – well, never mind. It’s a trick that most rappers try, but rarely pull off – making a lothario look cute, a sort of comic satyr. There are few artists at any age who can create this spectacular a show, much less at 74. Based upon recordings, I was not a big fan of Bobby Rush, but after seeing his show, I’m a convert. I’ll bet that someday 20 years from now, people will reserve the same reverence for his performances that Howlin’ Wolf shows have now.

 
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