Last year the Chicago Blues Festival pulled off a major coup by reuniting Ray Charles with his star-studded horn section of the 1950s, and during the first decade of the annual free event, now in its 16th year, there were many comparable once-in-a-lifetime evenings. But whether due to budget constraints or City Hall’s (probably correct) supposition that a few hundred thousand people will pack Grant Park no matter who’s playing, moments of greatness have been few and far between in recent years. Including this one.

A visit to New Orleans’s eclectic Jazz & Heritage Festival underscored the problem at home. Jazzfest’s kickoff weekend climaxed with performances by Charles, Eddie Bo, Dr. John, and hometown hero Fats Domino–a lineup worth risking heatstroke for. The side stages offered a load of Louisiana blues, R & B, and early rock legends, including Tommy Ridgley, Jean Knight, Warren Storm, and Dale Hawkins, none of whom has ever graced Petrillo’s stage. Beer lines were short, and the cuisine was superb–if only either were the norm in Grant Park.

Chicago’s policy of presenting the Blues Fest for free–unlike the Jazz & Heritage Festival or competing blues festivals elsewhere–is admirable, but puts us at a disadvantage in the face of steadily rising booking costs. Selling tickets for just those prime seats down front at Petrillo–you know, the ones reserved for politically connected types–could generate much-needed funds to hike talent levels back to where they once were.

That said, this year’s lineup does feature a number of artists worth the haul downtown. Bobby “Blue” Bland and Denise LaSalle, who’ve both commanded the main stage before, are reliable pros; Saturday evening’s female-dominated lineup is relatively inspired; and late Chicago harp great Junior Wells will get his due Friday afternoon from a promising gathering of former musical cohorts and friends.

As usual, there are four principal stages. The big guns play each evening at Petrillo Music Shell, on the northeast corner of Jackson and Columbus. Everything else takes place in the afternoon: the little Juke Joint stage (on Columbus just north of Petrillo) presents acoustic acts, usually in a solo or duo format; the Front Porch (at the southwest corner of Jackson and Columbus) features mostly traditional artists; and the Crossroads (at Jackson and Lake Shore Drive) highlights more contemporary fare with higher decibel levels.

There’s also the tiny Route 66 stage, located a little south of Jackson on Columbus and in business from 3:00 to 7:30 PM each day. Only an incomplete schedule was available at press time, but in its unheralded debut last year this site reportedly hosted some interesting jams. And finally, there’s the Best Buy Showcase stage, which is connected to the chain’s tented shopping area in the intersection of Jackson and Columbus and exists largely to entice festgoers inside. It’s not booked by the city, but there’s some overlap with the city’s schedule, which is why we’ve decided to include it in our guide.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.