IT'S THE BLUES

Friday, June 23, 2006

CHICAGO BLUES FESTIVAL 2006





CHICAGO BLUES FESTIVAL 2006
Wrap up and photo’s by Mark Fredell

So I made it, Chi-town, all set for another long weekend of end to end blues. After a leisurely train ride on Amtrak (I know it’s not like riding the blinds or jumpin’ the freight, but it’s as close as you can get these days) I arrived late Wednesday afternoon and settled into my digs. I’m one of those luck one’s that has some family in the windy city so I get to crash in the guest room. Living on the south side I rely on the ‘L’ train for my main source of transportation riding the red line from the neighborhood, down town to the Jackson stop then it’s a quick few blocks to Grant Park long time site of the Chicago Blues Fest…I leave the house around 10:30am on Thursday the festival runs from Thursday the 8th thru Sunday the 11th. I’m not sure what it is as I arrive but the feeling seems different from years past to me, now granted I did get there early ( I like to roam around a bit and get a feel for the lay of the land, plus it gives me chance to try and find some old friends.) Anyhow the vibe seems a little somber on this first day. Granted the line up is perhaps the most eclectic in years and though of course all the music is good there really aren’t as many ’can’t miss’ performances as I’ve experienced in the past couple years, that being said there were some spirited moments on the first day and a couple of acts that I was very anxious to see…For the benefit of those that haven’t made it to this huge scale event, let me give a brief description, visualize an intersection (in this case it’s Jackson & Columbia) then block off each street a block away in each direction (that’s a long urban block not one of those little mini blocks some are used to. Then disperse the stages, food vendors and assorted merchandise tents, tables, port-a-pots, all anchored by the Petrillo Band Shell on one side and the famous (Married With Children) Fountain on the other side and that’s the setting so you are guaranteed to work off all those extra calories from the deep dish pizza and Chicago dogs. All this right at the edge of lake Michigan the first two days tend to start off a bit quiet in terms of attendance compared to Saturday and Sunday, and this year was no exception. After some time talking with old friends and new and generally assessing some of the changes I came to assume that part of the difference is due to the lack of the major sponsor. After a long association Best Buy has pulled out of the festival and has left a gaping hole. They used to host one of the better stages as well as provide an expansive merchandising tent filled with Cd’s and DVD’s in which they hosted artist signings after performances and I think it may be partly due to their departure that this years line-up seems padded with a bit more filler than usual. Now that’s not to say that there weren’t some highlights.Just a few of those highlights included a duo performance with Larry McCray on the Louisiana Bayou Station & Social Club stage (an addition to replace the Best Buy stage) this set was before he headed to the Petrillo Stage with his band as one of the days 3 headliners. Stripped down and funky Larry and his partner (I showed up late so I never did get his name) brought down the house so to speak. Then there was Fernando Jones & the Chicago Blues Ensemble, an assemblage of students from Columbia College that though ruff around the edges at times made up for it in sheer enthusiasm. There was the set billed as the lost treasures on the Gibson Guitar stage that featured Charlie Love & the Silky Smooth Band , with guests John Hill, Liz Mandville Greeson, Delores Scott and Osee Anderson and others… Osee was the cat I wanted to see on this stage, he’s a great guitar player, very progressive and some one I first became acquainted with some 15 or so years ago while still living in Southern California he was great, the whole set was really good. Then of course the 2 can’t miss sets for me anyways where Super Chikan and Saffire The Uppity Blues Women, now thankfully Chikan will be playing a few times throughout the weekend since he was having a little trouble getting in for some reason and started nearly 40 minutes late but it was Saffire that I was most eager to see. Call them feminist, socially conscience activist blues diva’s or just call them UPPITY I love these gals I heard from plenty of sources about various macho men at the site this first day that can’t stand them, and granted they do draw a majority female following and not just a few lesbians as well, but I guess I am one of those enlightened men that’s secure in my masculinity enough to enjoy Saffire’s feminist stance and not be offended. They played a long 90 minute set and at one point I wandered off to see my friend Marie Dixon (the wife of the late great Willie Dixon to tell her about them, she didn’t realize they were on the line up and wanted to see them so taking my hand in hers off we went, right up to the front of the stage where upon spotting Marie the gals stopped mid song to introduce her then there were greetings, smiles and back to the music, then more interruptions to talk to Marie then more music this went on for about 15 minutes until Marie was ready to return to the Blues Heaven tent.There was plenty of other good music, the crowd was growing bigger as day turned to evening and the main stage got set for the opening day headliner Miss Bettye LaVette. And thus day one of Blues Fest 2006 came to an end.
So Friday arrived and for me anyhow things got underway at about 1:00pm with an inspired set by Louisiana Red backed by a trio of local players including Kenny ’Beady Eyes’ Smith on drums (he’s of course the son of legendary Muddy Waters Drummer Willie ’Big Eyes’ Smith) Red was in great spirits and sang songs filled with passion and fire, seated for most of the set he was moved to his feet a few times as he picked his guitar, played some wicked slide and brought the small but enthusiastic crowd to it’s collective feet.After Red I was off to the ‘new’ Louisiana stage for a set by a duo put together for the fest.. Vasti Jackson and Henry Butler,



Vasti, took to the stage first with his new National Steel guitar in hand and simply tore up some classic delta blues, this native of Macomb Mississippi knows his stuff, he then introduced New Orleans keyboard master Henry Butler, explaining they had met years ago and had often talked about working together and finally have, Vasti co-produced and wrote some songs for Butlers latest release. As the blind Butler took his seat Jackson said his goodbyes saying he would be back at which point Butler asked where you going, just sit right down and lets play one for these folks. Vasti quickly obeyed and they cut into some rollicking ’Nawlin’s R&B. After the first one with Henry, Vasti bid farewell for now and Butler worked his magic on the 88’s with a gumbo of rollicking grooves smiling and swaying as he got the fans up and dancing in the street’s. I unfortunately needed to leave before Vasti’s return as I wanted to catch some of Chris Beards set.So off I went, Henry Butler’s piano strains ringing in my ears as I headed for the Gibson Guitar stage, set to start at 2:00, it was nearly 2:30 by the time I arrived and they were still setting the stage and this is where things began to slide down hill. Fortunately Beard’s band took the stage pretty quickly after I got there. They did an instrumental before introducing Chris, whom out in the crowd was having some trouble with his remote guitar kit cutting out on him, as he made his way to the stage the problem got resolved and it seemed his fingers were on fire riffing on Albert King, Freddie King and other greats. Now I cut this set short since as Chris and company started late and I was eager to see little Smokey Smothers and Elvin Bishop at the small and intimate setting of the Juke Joint stage so after Chris’s third song off I went.Bishop and Smothers scheduled to begin their set at 2:30 and as I got to the stage area nearly 2:50 I spy Bishop signing autographs by the back stage area then off into the tent ( set up as the band area back stage) the crowd was the thickest I’ve ever seen in front of this small stage (this is my forth trip to this event) and the people seemed; like myself eager to catch Elvin before his headlining set with his band later in the evening. After trying to find a good spot for my camera, and then standing around another 20+ minutes as Bishop and Smothers sat in the shade of their tent I simply gave up, they were now nearly 45 minutes late and the crowd was still growing. I’m sorry but at an event like this with four stages going at once and people trying to catch as much as they can there is no excuse to be that behind schedule if the performers are simply sitting back stage… So off I went to catch a bit of Super Chikan. By now though I was a bit irate so I figured I’d take a pass on the rest of the players I was gonna check out, so no Eddie Bo or Dwayne Burnside or the others and off I went to hit Legends (Buddy Guy’s club of course) to get some beers, some much better food than you’ll get at any festival and some great music. First from Phil Guy (Buddy’s brother) and then one of my very favorites Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials… the room wasn’t to crowded and it was out of the sun so my spirits improved, after a while it was back home to rest up for day three.

Saturday morning hit and I was off again, after the trials and tribulations of Friday I was hopeful that things would run a bit smother on Saturday, after all this is when the real crowd’s show up and the park is jammed with bodies. What I was probably looking most forward to were the two ‘masters set(s)’ featuring Robert Lockwood Jr., Honeyboy Edwards, Henry Townsend & Homesick James, now they have done some variation of this each time that I’ve attended the Fest over the past number of years but these four hadn’t been together so far as I know since they did a brief tour some five or six years ago. This was promising to be good; with them actually partaking in two different sets on two stages, the first on the large ’front porch’ stage scheduled for 90 minutes then a half hour set on the smaller juke joint stage. Now as I arrived about five minutes before the first set was slated to start there was almost no one at the front porch stage then I heard the announcement, that this performance had been moved into the ’route 66 roadhouse’ a tent set up for the workshops and seminars, so I head that direction and of course there are probably 800 people crowded around the tent all clamoring to catch a glimpse of the players, you can barely hear the music coming out and there was absolutely no hope of any pictures for me. Since it’s essentially shooting into a dark room. So I hang around a bit and listen to what I can, I get to greet Honeyboy as he arrives, by the way this particular performance had each man playing individually with the exception of Homesick who was accompanied by John Long his one time pupil and the cat that actually started out the days music for this stage. After hanging round a while longer I headed down to the Gibson stage to catch Big George Brock confident that I would get to capture at least a few shots of the ’masters’ all on stage together on the juke joint stage at 2:30. Brock was terrific, wearing is bright baby blue suit, singing gutsy deep delta blues with a modern day delta band and blowin’ some fine harp too boot. From there it was off to the Louisiana Bayou stage to catch the solo set from Ronnie Baker Brooks. He was inspired, I’ll be honest I didn’t know he had it in him, of course he can light up a stage with his electric guitar and solid rockin’ band but he had some 500 or so festival goers mesmerized as he picked and sang by himself on this little stage, he tore it up… after this first of two sets this day by Ronnie it was back to the Gibson stage to capture a few minutes of today’s Super Chikan set and of course he was solid as ever, the only act to play everyday of the festival… from there it was of to the juke joint to catch the second ’masters set’ only to learn that there wouldn’t be a second one…. Hmmm. Bummer… Well then I guess I will get to see more of Henry Grey and the Cats than I had originally planned, as they are taking the stage at the other end of the block. I watched Henry and the Cats for about 40 minutes then I need some fuel so off to the food stands before I headed out to the lawn at the front porch stage for a mesmerizing set by a solo James Blood Ulmer, I ate, I smoked a cigar, I swayed to his hypnotic rhythms he was great. At the same time Ronnie Baker was at the other end of the festival with his band doing his second set of the day. So after nearly 40 minutes with Ulmer, I headed down the block stopping by the juke joint stage to get a taste of Corky Siegel and Sam Lay (on guitar no less) then off to catch the last few minutes of the Ronnie Baker Brooks Band. Finally for me on Saturday it was back to the juke join stage for another day of the new jam station, this time featuring harp players and one cat on didgeridoo none other than Australian Harmonica master Harper, also on deck were Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and his son Kenny, Dave Specter and Aron Burton among plenty of hap players who’s names I didn’t catch. After this it was off to the house for me and my evening of quality time with my three year old niece…I had committed to baby sit and she would up keeping me up past 3am.
So once I finally hit my pillow it seemed like no time before I was up and headed out the door to hit the Blues Brunch at the Jazz Record Mart where I caught Lurrie Bell among others. Then it was back to Grant park for the final day of the 2006 Chicago Blues Festival.. This one was gonna be a relatively short one for me, not to much happening for my taste’s today, though I did catch the second set of the weekend from Louisiana Red and of course some more music from Super Chikan as well as an inspiring blend of gospel and blues from the Lee Boys (the think the Robert Randolph Family Band with a couple more voices) some wicked lap steel guitar and great five part harmonies. Then there was a phenomenal set by an old acquaintance named Earl Thomas who on his latest Cd sounds more or less subdued, locked into the late 70’s soul grove but on stage can transport an audience back to STAX records circa 1966...
He was awesome! The last 2 performances for me where a bit of a set by yet another very late starting Catherine Russell, out of New York, Catherine has a solid voice but was doing more contemporary jazz than blues and was, I felt, one of the oddest fits that I saw this year. Then there was what was billed as Blues: Chicago’s Global Muse - A Silk Road Experiment between John Primer, Yoko Noge, Tatsu Aoki and Taiko Drums. This set was fascinating built on blues riff’s and rhythms Primer along with his Japanese counterparts played an incredible hybrid musical mosaic and at the same time really rocked the block….
Well that’s it, I completely skipped the headline stage this year, choosing to focus my attention on the other (smaller) stages there was a strong emphasis on soul blues this year and with the multiple sets by many artists and a general lack of variety… the stuff that was good was VERY good and the rest was simply alright. So until next year go out and hit a festival or two in your area.
And remember, peace, Love and Blues…


1 Comments:

  • Cool post. I'll probably be going to see the Long Island Blues Festival which is early next month. I live right there so expect a full report!

    By Blogger Bluesman, at 1:23 AM  

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