The 31st Annual Chicago Blues Festival roared into the beautiful Grant Park in downtown Chicago last weekend, bringing some of the absolute best performers, both new and festival alumni, and hundreds of thousands of their best friends, making it the largest free blues festival around. With one of the most unique and endearing festival settings in the world, the park’s lush trees provided atmosphere and shade, while the towering downtown Chicago backdrop served as a warm, inviting reminder to explore the many features of the city’s culture.
Friday morning, the festival kicked off with the Maxwell Street Blues Band, who’s name pays homage to the street where the stunning history behind the Chicago Blues flourished. The Jackson Mississippi Rhythm & Blues Stage hosted an in-depth discussion on harmonica great Sonny Boy Williamson, who the festival was honoring this year. The stage later broke into this year’s IBC winner from Vicksburg, Mississippi, Mr. Sipp “The Mississippi Blues Child”, who whipped the crowd into a screaming frenzy with his trademark broken glasses and his wild, creative voodoo guitar antics.
The main stage, Petrillo Music Shell, hosted the roots extraordinaires Carolina Chocolate Drops, who fiddled and banjoed their way into fan’s hearts as they talked about the African influence on music, and how it belongs to everyone in between their stunning, modern interpretations of ancient and sacred music. As the sun was going down, underneath Friday the 13th’s full moon, trance blues master Otis Taylor gave a masterful and eclectic roots performance. There’s a reason Taylor is one of a kind, with his droning beats and deceptively simple storytelling. Under the full moon, he showed tens of thousands of attendees exactly what that reason was.
Saturday had no trouble keeping pace with Friday. On the Windy City Blues Society Stage, young blue star Tallan Noble Latz commanded a crowd. Dressed in a Captain America tee, American flag glasses and matching shoes, he played a stunning guitar set, full-throttled with energy to spare, which he used to jump on amps and get the crowd screaming. Latz is a force. Immediately afterwards, Bob Corritore and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith joined the Dave Riley Band to present a beautiful traditional-leaning blues set. Corritore is a harmonica master, and his harp skills were a thrill for audiences.
At the Bud Light Crossroads Stage, former IBC winner Selwyn Birchwood brought the swampy Florida blues that’s earned him an exciting career and a record deal with Alligator Records (his album Don’t Call No Ambulance was released the Tuesday before his set). Guy King played the Pepsi Front Porch Stage, where his B.B. King style, fused with a burning, simmering guitar brought thousands of fans, who sat under the shade of the stage’s many trees and cheered on hometown-adopted Guy. Fans at the “Meet Me In Memphis” Stage enjoyed the brass band love of Jackson, Mississippi-based Southern Komfort before getting a healthy dose of Eden Brent and her delta boogaloo piano prowess. Many of the songs came from her brand new album, Jigsaw Heart.
Fans walked around with “Bettye LaVette: She Will **** You Up” t-shirts, and when the sun went down, she showed the huge crowd what her many fans already knew: The powerful Motown soul sound that LaVette’s been honing for fifty years is better than ever and dressed with all the fixin’s.
Sunday morning, the Jackson Mississippi Rhythm & Blues Festival Stage hosted a panel discussion on Jackson’s Farish Street, with blues great Dorthy Moore and renown blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow. The Pepsi Front Porch Stage had a refreshing twist with the Chicago Delta Blues Band, which included among it’s ranks, Billy Flynn, Barrelhouse Chuck, Lil’ Frank and Kenny Smith. Sunday’s events largely revolved around the Petrillo Music Shell Stage, where Nikki and Matt Hill played first, followed by a heavy dose of New Orleans, beginning with the funky stylings of the great performer Aaron Neville. After Neville, the great Dr. John took the stage, playing a mix of traditional songs and tracks from his critically and fan-acclaimed new album, Locked Down.
Ultimately, the Chicago Blues Festival was again a bright unison of powerful musical styles from a diverse background; with New Orleans and Mississippi being heavily represented alongside Chicago’s best, the festival was a living, exciting showcase evoking the long journey from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and riverside streets of New Orleans to the busy blues clubs and joints of Chicago. Three days of absolutely riveting music, plenty of space, and a perfect downtown location let the free Chicago Blues Festival once again show why more people flock to this blues event than any other.