James Cotton
James Cotton

The economy continues to force music festivals nationwide to reconsider their missions, and the Chicago Blues Festival is no exception. In 2009 the Mayor’s Office of Special Events cut the schedule back to three days from four, and that change remains in effect for 2010. The lineup includes a much higher percentage of locals than usual, and you’d have to go back many years to find fewer acts with star power on the bill. The good news, though, is that there are so many quality artists on the Chicago blues scene that a heavily local edition of Blues Fest can be interesting and even inspiring.

A day at this year’s festival is very much like the kind of blues-club crawl that people from all over the world still come to Chicago to experience. From sophisticates like Erwin Helfer, who flavor their blues with jazz, to barnstormers like Carl Weathersby and Toronzo Cannon, who push into rock and funk territory, the locals on the bill both invoke and update tradition—Chicago clubgoers may not realize how fortunate they are to be able to hear them on a regular basis. Emissaries from other blues strongholds include Big George Brock from Saint Louis, Bobby Rush from Jackson, Mississippi, and Roy Roberts from Greensboro, North Carolina.

Most historians believe 2010 to be the centennial of Howlin’ Wolf’s birth, and the festival’s various tributes to Wolf’s legacy—including an interview with his stepdaughters and some of his most important sidemen on Friday at the Route 66 Roadhouse—give some historical depth to an event that’s otherwise focused on modern blues. Though there are probably fewer artists this year playing contemporary southern soul-blues (still the most popular sound with African-American listeners), the presence of southern-circuit stalwarts like Bobby Rush, Barbara Carr, and T.K. Soul is another reminder that the blues is a living, evolving art form, and that to remain viable it incorporates rather than resists influences from other forms of music.

The lay of the land: Petrillo Music Shell, where most of the bigger names play, is just northeast of Columbus and Jackson. The Front Porch stage, which features mostly acoustic acts and small bands, is on the lawn south of Jackson and east of Columbus. The Route 66 Roadhouse, which hosts panel discussions and interviews with musicians, authors, and other notables, is at Columbus and Jackson. The Crossroads stage, which features electric blues from local and national artists, is at the east end of Jackson at Lake Shore Drive. The Mississippi Juke Joint, whose bookings lean toward rootsier acts, both acoustic and electric, is south on Columbus near Balbo, just east of the Lincoln statue. Last year’s Maxwell Street Corner “stage” (really more of an area), on Columbus between Jackson and Monroe, has been expanded into a Blues Village sponsored and programmed by the Windy City Blues Society and other local nonprofits, all of which will have tents or booths set up to distribute information and solicit memberships. The village includes several stages featuring dozens of local musicians.

The festival’s most notable acts are described below. All events are free. —DW


Front Porch

11:30 AM Blues in the Schools featuring Eric Noden, Katherine Davis and the Stone Academy Blues Students, and more

1:30 PM Henry Gray and Andy Cornett

Eighty-five years old but frisky as ever on the 88s, Baton Rouge-based Henry Gray still lays down a mean boogie and pounds out swampy, tenacious downbeat blues. In the 50s he was one of Chicago’s top pianists, backing the likes of Billy Boy Arnold, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers, and longtime boss Howlin’ Wolf in the studio. Gray returned to his native Louisiana in 1968 and in the 80s emerged as a bandleader in his own right. Andy Cornett is his bassist and producer. —BD

3 PM Jimmy Dawkins and Tail Dragger

At his best, veteran Jimmy Dawkins can play some of the most emotionally harrowing blues you’ll hear anywhere, with blistering midrange guitar and angst-ridden lyrics. James “Tail Dragger” Jones, on the other hand, is a juker whose wry humor and Howlin’ Wolf-influenced vocals have been helping west-side gin mills get into the party spirit for decades. He recorded for Dawkins’s Leric label in the 80s, and several of those sides appear on a new Delmark compilation drawn from the Leric catalog. —DW

5 PM Cafe R & B

6:30 PM Big George Brock & the Houserockers with George Brock Jr.

Saint Louis-based harpist and vocalist Big George rock has a pretty basic style, but what his fatback-and-rotgut sound lacks in sophistication it makes up for with the sweaty funk of a down-home juke on a Saturday night. —DW


Noon Dave Weld & the Imperial Flames

1:45 PM Mary Lane & the No Static Blues Band

3:45 PM Grady Champion

Mississippi Juke Joint

12:30 PM Grady Champion

2 PM Sam Lay

Sam Lay’s credits as a drummer are diverse, to say the least. He was Howlin’ Wolf’s sticks man in the early to mid-60s, then joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a gig that led him to the sessions for Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. These days, though, he works mostly as a solo acoustic guitarist, playing amiable versions of well-known blues classics; that’s what he’ll be doing for this solo set. —DW

3:30 PM Stevie J & the Blues Eruption

5 PM Adib Sabir

6:30 PM Mississippi Jam

Route 66 Roadhouse

Noon Beginning Delta blues harmonica lesson with Joe Filisko

1:30 PM Discussing Wolf: 100 Years of Remembrances moderated by Larry Hoffman, with Bettye Kelly, Barbra Marks, Eddie Shaw, Dick Shurman, and Hubert Sumlin

4 PM Wildsang

5:30 PM East of Edens Soul Express

Petrillo Music Shell

5 PM Howlin’ Wolf alumni featuring Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang with Jody Williams, Sam Lay, Henry Gray, Abb Locke, Corky Siegel, and special guest Hubert Sumlin

Chester Burnett—better known as Chicago blues immortal Howlin’ Wolf—would be celebrating his 100th birthday this week, more than reason enough to call up a bunch of the musicians he used to run with for this all-star set. Guitarist Hubert Sumlin was Wolf’s invaluable foil for decades, his elastic, darting leads nearly as essential to the big man’s sound as his own feral howl and wheezing harp. Jody Williams spent some quality time in Wolf’s outfit in the 50s; he’s no less inventive a guitarist than Sumlin, as he proved with Bo Diddley back then and continues to do on his own today. Tenor saxist Eddie Shaw powered later incarnations of Burnett’s combo with his lusty wails; he’s fronted the Wolf Gang since his boss’s death in 1976. Well before Shaw’s tenure with Wolf, saxist Abb Locke blew up a storm in his band, and Henry Gray held down the piano stool for a dozen years. Harpist Corky Siegel is the odd man out here, though he has a firm grasp of the idiom. —BD

6:15 PM Otis Taylor Band

Otis Taylor emerged from the Denver folk scene in the 60s, and after stints with future James Gang and Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin and Bolin’s erstwhile band Zephyr, he left music in the late 70s. When he returned in the mid-90s, he’d reverted to an acoustic style crafted to reflect the blues’ African heritage—today many of his songs use modal harmony, and their swirling rhythms and circular, call-and-response structures hark back to the ring shout, a form of ritual dance brought to the U.S. and Caribbean by African slaves. By drawing on these traditions as well as the electrified, almost psychedelic sound he learned during his rock ‘n’ roll days, Taylor creates musical landscapes whose vividness matches that of his lyrics, which are among the most evocative in all of popular music. He can conjure up entire worlds, sometimes nightmarish but always uplifting—the classic paradox of the blues. —DW

7:20 PM James Cotton Blues Band with special guest Matt “Guitar” Murphy

Harmonica blaster James Cotton, a former Muddy Waters sideman, made some of the highest-energy blues of the 70s with his funky band, sparked by the sizzling licks of Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who’d previously done the same for pianist Memphis Slim—and who would go on to play with the Blues Brothers after leaving Cotton’s group in the late 70s. This is a most welcome reunion for them: Murphy is on the comeback trail after a 2003 stroke, and though Cotton’s voice long ago deserted him, he’s still got his freight-train harp sound. —BD

8:25 PM Zora Young’s tribute to Wolf and Sunnyland with special guest Hubert Sumlin

As one of precious few local blues chanteuses with the voice, strut, and charisma to be seriously considered a successor to Koko Taylor’s throne, Zora Young can earn a main-stage slot without paying homage to Howlin’ Wolf or Sunnyland Slim. But she’s got her reasons: the late pianist was among her mentors, and Wolf’s old guitarist Hubert Sumlin added high-octane release to her 2009 album Sunnyland (Airway), an impressive tribute that brought out the best in the veteran belter. —BD


Front Porch

11:30 AM Ramblin’ Rose

1 PM Bobby Dixon Blues Band

2:45 PM Nora Jean

4:30 PM Andre Williams

Andre Williams has had a long and varied career: he’s been a 1950s Detroit doo-wopper (his languid dance number “Bacon Fat” was a national hit), an early recruit to the Motown label (though he seldom saw eye-to-eye with Berry Gordy), and a 60s Chicago A and R man (he produced Alvin Cash & the Crawlers’ “Twine Time,” the Five Du-Tones’ “Shake a Tail Feather,” and Sir Mack Rice’s original “Mustang Sally”). In the 80s he suffered through some largely self-inflicted hard times, but he seems to have come through unscathed—the comeback he began in the late 90s is still picking up steam. His first attempt at fiction writing, a story collection called Sweets, just hit the streets, and he’s seldom away from the studio for long, recording in R & B, rock, rap, and even country contexts. Williams has earned a new fan base hooked by his ribald, streetwise persona and immaculate attire, but his truly rabid fans remain most enamored with his 50s singles for Detroit’s shoestring Fortune Records: hilarious R & B gems like “Jail Bait” and “The Greasy Chicken,” where he first proved himself the maverick he’s always been. —BD

6 PM Johnny & Destini Rawls

Johnny Rawls got his start in the late 60s on the southern soul circuit, eventually working with luminaries like O.V. Wright and Little Johnny Taylor, and their churchy sound remains an important element of his style—though he leavens it with a poppy melodic sensibility, both in his songwriting and in his guitar solos. Destini is an up-and-coming singer who, like her father, combines passionate deep soul with smooth, youthful-sounding contemporary pop. —DW


Noon Toronzo & the Cannonball Express

1:45 PM Sugar Blue Band

Sugar Blue, probably still best known for his famous harmonica break on the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” says he loves the blues tradition, but he shows it by departing radically from accepted norms of “authenticity” and blazing trails of his own. His solos can sound almost assaultive with their piercing tone and endless multinote barrages, but like Ornette Coleman in jazz he invokes deep roots even as he shatters boundaries. That boundary shattering, paradoxically, may be the rootsiest thing about him—a way of staying true to the rebellious, iconoclastic spirit of this “devil’s music.” —DW

3:30 PM Sonny Rhodes

Only a handful of postwar bluesmen have embraced the lap steel guitar, and Sonny Rhodes is the most notable among them. The turbaned Texan makes it talk every bit as eloquently as he does an ordinary guitar—which he played on his soulful 45s for the Bay Area label Galaxy Records in the 60s. Since the late 80s, by which time he’d mastered the steel, Rhodes has been a lot more prolific in the studio, and his husky, penetrating vocals are still quite potent. —BD

Mississippi Juke Joint

12:30 PM Jarekus Singleton with Keeshea Pratt

2 PM David “Honeyboy” Edwards

Nonagenarian Honeyboy Edwards is among the last, if not the last, of the Delta bluesmen who actually knew and worked alongside founding fathers like Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton. His chops aren’t what they used to be, but despite his gnarled fingers he can still pull off some stinging slide patterns and fierce single-string declamations; his voice, though rougher and huskier than it was in his heyday, remains charged with emotional intensity. —DW

3:30 PM Bill “Howlin Madd” Perry with Alphonso Sanders

5 PM Dexter Allen

6:30 PM Festival Jam featuring Blue Plate Special

Route 66 Roadhouse

Noon Beginning southern blues harmonica lesson with Joe Filisko

1:30 PM Joe Filisko and Eric Noden

3 PM Reverend K.M. Williams & the Amazing Trainreck

4:45 PM Larry Hoffman interviews William Ferris

6:15 PM East of Edens Soul Express

Petrillo Music Shell

5 PM Nellie “Tiger” Travis and Jackie Scott

Chicago singer Nellie Travis never sounded entirely comfortable with the 12-bar blues her producers saddled her with early in her career, but lately she’s switched to a provocative, R & B-laced soul-blues style, and her recent recordings—especially heart-ripping ballads like “Don’t Talk to Me,” from the 2008 album I’m a Woman (CDS)—showcase her kittenish, vibrato-heavy voice to much better advantage. She’ll be backed by her band, the Men in Black, and joined by Jackie Scott, a Virginia-born vocalist who similarly blends blues, southern soul, and contemporary R & B. —DW

6:20 PM Bobby Parker & the Blues Night Band

Give guitarist Bobby Parker an amp that goes to 13, and he’ll still find a way to make it one louder. One night at B.L.U.E.S. Etc. I saw him reduce Carl Weathersby’s rig to a smoking ruin only five minutes after he plugged in with the Sons of Blues. A Louisiana native who’s now a mainstay of the blues scene in Washington, D.C., Parker fires off barrages of liquid licks that strike with the focused explosive power of air-to-ground missiles. He hasn’t had much chart success himself, but he’s been a huge influence on better-known players: Parker’s 1957 debut for Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records, “You Got What It Takes,” became a smash when Detroiter Marv Johnson covered it, and the Beatles adapted the killer guitar hook of his ’61 rocker “Watch Your Step” into the intros of “I Feel Fine” and “Day Tripper.” Robert Plant raved about his soulful singing; Jimmy Page was knocked out by his guitar chops. But few people outside D.C. realized he was still cooking till Black Top started releasing fresh Parker music in the 90s. Bring earplugs if you plan to listen from anywhere near the stage. —BD

7:35 PM Chicago Blues: A Living History featuring Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, John Primer, Lurrie Bell, and special guest Carlos Johnson

Last year’s acclaimed two-CD set Chicago Blues: A Living History (Raisin’ Music) celebrated the city’s blues legacy by gathering some of its best tradition-minded players to dig into classic material. Harpists Billy Boy Arnold and Billy Branch and guitarists John Primer, Lurrie Bell, and Carlos Johnson—all of whom have the skill and imagination to make those old songs more vital than mere museum exhibits—reunite tonight to reprise their roles. —BD


Front Porch

11:30 AM Linda Tillery & the Cultural Heritage Choir

1:30 PM Dancin’ Perkins

3:30 PM Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

Whether he’s a bluesman may be open to debate, but folk troubadour Jack Elliott is one of Woody Guthrie’s last living disciples, just as Honeyboy Edwards is one of the last living links to the era of Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson—he deserves a place on the bus for that status alone. His recording career spans six decades, and he retains both his dexterity as a guitar picker and his charm and wisdom as a sagelike storyteller. This is a rare Chicago appearance by an underappreciated master of American vernacular music, and not to be missed. —DW

4:45 PM Guitar Shorty

Long celebrated for his onstage gymnastics—somersaults, backflips, headstands—David “Guitar Shorty” Kearney also has a bare-knuckled six-string style that’s only grown more aggressive since he signed with Chicago’s Alligator Records three albums ago. The exuberant Texas-born axman, who cut his debut single for another local label, Cobra Records, in 1957, plays muscular blues injected with blistering rock, and claims a first-person influence on the young Jimi Hendrix. —BD

6:15 PM Lubriphonic


Noon Quintus McCormick

1:45 PM Gibson Guitar Showdown with Carl Weathersby and Larry McCray

The contemporary blues world is loaded with guitarists capable of dazzling pyrotechnics, but few combine that sort of prowess with emotionally engaging musicality like Carl Weathersby and Larry McCray. Their set here ought to have plenty of soulful storytelling to go along with the flash and flamboyance. —DW

3:30 PM Roy Roberts with special guest Barbara Carr

North Carolina-based guitarist and vocalist Roy Roberts blends straight-ahead blues and deep soul with disarming ease, creating a personalized style that avoids both the rocked-out excess that can mar guitar-based electric blues and the synth-heavy assembly-line sameyness that’s the scourge of current soul-blues. Barbara Carr is probably best known for the brazenly frank sex talk in her lyrics (“Footprints on the Ceiling,” “Bone Me Like You Own Me”), and her full-bodied voice has an emery-board rasp that’s well suited to a bad-bitch persona. Her true forte, though, is ballads: the 1999 version of Gene Chandler’s “Rainbow” she cut for the Ecko label is one of the most emotionally devastating recordings of the modern soul-blues era. Unfortunately, after that triumph she began to stagnate on Ecko—but her recent output on CDS proves that with more simpatico production she’s still capable of narrative eloquence. —DW

Mississippi Juke Joint

12:30 PM Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and Terry “Harmonica” Bean

2 PM Bobby Rush

Chitlin’-circuit mainstay Bobby Rush usually takes the stage not just with his hot-blooded funk-blues band but with a line of playfully lascivious booty-shaking dancers, and his flamboyant show brings packed houses to raucous laughter everywhere he goes. The faltering economy has hit the southern club circuit as hard if not harder than the rest of the country, though, so Rush recently put together a one-man acoustic act—and he’s such an accomplished storyteller, comedian, trickster, and musician that he can create the same excitement and unpredictability his full-band revues are famous for all by himself. Here he’ll be accompanied by Dexter Allen, his longtime lead guitarist, a setting that will no doubt give him extra opportunity to showcase his harmonica playing, which is supple, emotionally rich, and surprisingly down-home for a resolutely urbane showman like Rush. —DW

3:30 PM Homemade Jamz Blues Band

5 PM Jarekus Singleton with Keeshea Pratt

6:30 PM Mississippi Jam

Route 66 Roadhouse

Noon Beginning Chicago blues harmonica lesson with Joe Filisko

1:30 PM Larry Hoffman rambles with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

3 PM Blues Books: University of Illinois Press, with authors Lincoln T. Beauchamp Jr. (aka Chicago Beau), Steve Cushing, and David Whiteis

5 PM East of Edens Soul Express

Petrillo Music Shell

5 PM Erwin Helfer’s Chicago Boogie-Woogie Ensemble

Few Chicago ivories aces can pound out a four-on-the-floor boogie-woogie with the easy strength and fluid grace of Erwin Helfer. He’s an educator as well as a performer, steeped in jazz and classical traditions as well as the styles of Jimmy Yancey and Albert Ammons. One of his earliest sessions was with Big Joe Williams in 1957, so his thoughtful, swinging explorations into the middle ground between blues, boogie, and jazz have been ongoing for more than half a century. —BD

6 PM Vivian and Vance “Guitar” Kelly & the Backstreet Blues Band

Even Robert Johnson, the most archetypal of bluesmen, is said to have included polkas and pop standards such as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” in his act, and Chicago mainstay Vance Kelly continues in this tradition—though he’s perfectly capable of settling into a rootsy 12-bar Chicago groove, he’s just as likely to play a funk, soul, R & B, or rock standard from any time in the past 25 or 30 years, delivered with his trademark elan and a self-assurance just short of cockiness. His daughter Vivian Vance Kelly, a rapidly developing singer with a penchant for soul balladry, will join him for this set. —DW

7:10 PM Chicago Blues Reunion featuring Barry Goldberg, Corky Siegel, Nick Gravenites, Harvey “the Snake” Mandel, and special guests Charlie Musselwhite and Sam Lay

This is pretty much a reprise of a reunion set from the 2003 Blues Festival: that is, the surviving members of the 60s Chicago blues-rock movement, minus Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, who were at least arguably its prime movers. Of the present company, only harpist Charlie Musselwhite has recorded anything of creative value in recent years, and since a lot of that music has been profoundly personal and not all that bluesy, he’s unlikely to get into it here. Oldheads who remember the good old days—when earnest white guys with guitars and harmonicas could sit in on 43rd Street, take what they’d learned there back to Old Town, and present it as something new and revolutionary—may enjoy the nostalgia trip, but anyone looking for cutting-edge blues will most likely be disappointed. —DW

8:30 PM T.K. Soul

Though he’s virtually unknown above the Mason-Dixon line, vocalist T.K. Soul (born Terence Kimble) is a hit maker on the southern soul-blues circuit. With his buoyant persona, his penchant for worldly-wise lyrics, and his tenor croon, which mixes callow vulnerability with an undercurrent of very grown-up desire, he perfectly embodies the best qualities of the still-evolving genre. Though there’s little in Soul’s repertoire that even the most open-minded fans would describe as “blues,” at least on purely musical terms, he traffics in tropes and sentiments familiar to blues fans: the men in his songs often find themselves hopelessly in thrall to women’s sexual power, and he repeatedly name-checks “Jody,” the archetypal trickster and wife stealer of modern-day blues. In his lyrics he mostly steers clear of the silly, faux-adolescent double-entendres that mar so much contemporary southern soul, and for all his boasting about his bedroom prowess, he also portrays himself as genuinely interested in his lady’s satisfaction. Soul calls what he does “grown folks” music, and it’s a breath of fresh air for those of us who still want to believe that soul can be about more than super freaks and hoochified high jinks. —DW