Blues music thrives on live interaction between performer and audience, but for nearly a year and a half, that’s been in short supply. Clubs are caught between “waiting to reopen” and “slowly coming back,” and Millennium Park has been largely quiet—for two Junes running, the city has canceled the Chicago Blues Festival. Our blues artists haven’t shown any serious signs of decline, though, even in these grim circumstances, and we’ll get a sampling of what they have to offer when the city’s Chicago in Tune festival presents a free Pritzker Pavilion concert on September 18 to mark the 50th anniversary of Alligator Records.

Many important Chicago blues labels predate Alligator, founded in 1971 by Bruce Iglauer, but few can match its long track record of releasing what it calls “Genuine Houserockin’ Music.” In its first decade alone, it released music by the likes of Hound Dog Taylor, Son Seals, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, and Lonnie Brooks. Alligator continues to prove to the world that Chicago blues is no museum piece—it’s as alive as any ten rock bands put together.

The city’s distinctive blues tradition extends at least as far back as the 1930s, with important pioneers such as Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, and Tampa Red. An uncountable number of blues musicians came to Chicago from the south during the Great Migration, which began in the 1910s: they included Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, J.B. Hutto, and Willie Dixon, and later Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Junior Wells, and James Cotton.

The addition of drums and amplification helped create what we now know as Chicago blues—one of the most significant developments in the genre’s history. It’s a big sound, and from its origins it made plenty of room for variety. Jazz-influenced pianists such as Eddie Boyd and Willie Mabon helped shape the scene as well, and they’d been preceded by the likes of Little Brother Montgomery, who first moved to the city in 1928 and settled here for good in 1941. The success of soul music in the early 60s added a new flavor to the Chicago sound (and a new way for gospel to influence the blues) via the stylings of vocalists such as Ricky Allen and Little Milton.

Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials performing live in France in 2015

The 1950s can be considered the golden age of Chicago blues, but that doesn’t mean the music hasn’t kept thriving. The six artists showcased at September’s Pritzker Pavilion concert continue to extend and expand blues traditions. And they all have releases on Alligator Records, except for Wayne Baker Brooks—and he’s the son of Alligator artist Lonnie Brooks.

Chicago in Tune: Blues
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Alligator Records. The Cash Box Kings headline, with guest Shemekia Copeland; Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials play second, with guest Billy Branch; the Nick Moss Band and Dennis Gruenling open, with guest Wayne Baker Brooks. Sat 9/18, 5:30 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph, free, all ages

Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials have been with Alligator the longest (their first album for the label came out in 1986), and they’ve had the same lineup for most of that time. Guitarist and front man Ed Williams is the nephew of slide-guitar wizard J.B. Hutto, who taught him the basics in the late 60s, and his high-energy playing reflects his uncle’s sound as well as his own identity. The Imperials were recording a track for the 1987 Alligator compilation The New Bluebloods, and Iglauer was so impressed he offered them a contract on the spot. By now Williams, guitarist Mike Garrett, drummer Kelly Littleton, and bassist James “Pookie” Young are one of the longest-running traditional blues acts in the city, alongside Lurrie Bell, John Primer, Jimmy Johnson, and Jimmy Burns.

Nick Moss worked his way up as a bassist with Jimmy Dawkins before joining Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s band, where he switched to guitar. He began leading his own group in 1997 and released a long string of albums on his own Blue Bella label before debuting on Alligator in 2018. For the past four years or so, he’s been working with harmonica player Dennis Gruenling, who has one of the driest, most full-bodied tones I’ve ever heard. Moss’s own sound spices up traditional Chicago blues with a streak of urbane Los Angeles jump blues.

The title track of the 2019 album Lucky Guy! by the Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling

The Cash Box Kings also have a small-combo jump-blues feel, albeit a little rowdier and with a touch of Memphis rockabilly. Founded in 2001 in Madison, Wisconsin, by singer and harmonica player Joe Nosek, the Kings added south-side Chicago vocalist Oscar Wilson as coleader in 2007. Much like labelmates Rick Estrin & the Nightcats, they use plenty of humor—on the 2019 Alligator album Hail to the Kings!, you can hear it loud and clear on “Joe, You Ain’t From Chicago.”

The Cash Box Kings live in the WNIJ studios in spring 2021

Shemekia Copeland (who makes a guest appearance on Hail to the Kings!) became a contender for Queen of the Blues at age 19, when her 1998 debut, Turn the Heat Up, hit the streets. And at the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival, the city and state formally granted the New York-born singer that title—and none other than Cookie Taylor (daughter of the late Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor) bestowed the crown onstage. Over the course of nine albums, Copeland has incorporated soul, classic rock, and Americana into her blues, along with a generous dose of social commentary.

Shemekia Copeland’s 2020 album Uncivil War

Harmonica master Billy Branch first started making the rounds in the 70s, and by the end of that decade he’d founded the long-running band Sons of Blues as well as the Blues in the Schools program, which teaches this uniquely American art form to schoolkids across the country. Building a decades-long legacy in a scene where artists come and go seemingly overnight is an accomplishment in itself, and Branch has also shared his gifts with collaborators in and out of the blues—they include Lou Rawls, Mexican rock band El Tri, and jazz guitarist George Freeman.

Billy Branch and his band the Sons of Blues play the title track from the 2014 album Blues Shock.

Chicago loves its blues rock, judging from the audiences that line up to see the likes of Toronzo Cannon, Melvin Taylor, and Joanna Connor. Wayne Baker Brooks falls solidly in that bag. Playing with his father, Lonnie Brooks, gave him invaluable experience—he joined Lonnie’s band in 1990, the year he turned 20—and over the past couple decades he’s made his own mark.

As wide-ranging as this lineup is, it only hints at the diversity of Chicago blues. And whatever form the music takes—the jazzy strides of guitarist Dave Specter, the soulful strokes of singer Gerald McClendon, the gospel inflections of guitarist Mississippi Gabe Carter—not even a pandemic can shut it down. Across the decades, through all its comings and goings, hosted by countless record labels, club stages, outdoor festivals, street corners, and subways, the blues has become part of the city’s DNA. It’s just too indigenous to die.

Notable blues events during Chicago in Tune

Bronzeville Blues: The Forum With Joe Filisko & Eric Noden, Greasy Gravy (Matt Hendricks and Rick Sherry), and Harmonica Hinds. Sun 8/29, noon-6:30 PM, near the Forum, 318-324 E. 43rd, free, all ages

Bronzeville Blues: Checkerboard Lounge With the Mojo Jam Session (featuring Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith), John Primer & the Real Deal Blues Band, Melody Angel, Big James & the Chicago Playboys, and Nick Alexander. Sun 8/29, noon-6:30 PM, near the original location of the Checkerboard Lounge, 423 E. 43rd, free, all ages

Bronzeville Blues: Park 43 With Bob Stroger, Mississippi Gabe Carter, and Gerry Hundt’s Legendary One-Man Band. Sun 8/29, noon-6:30 PM, Park 43, 540 E. 43rd, free, all ages

Record Row Series At the former Chess Records building that now houses Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. Sundays (8/29: Joe Pratt & the Source One Band, 9/5: Sheryl Youngblood, 9/12: Vino Louden, 9/19: John Primer duo), 6 PM, 2120 S. Michigan, free, all ages

Chicago Blues Club City Tour Twenty shows at ten clubs, including appearances by Jimmy Johnson, Joanna Connor, Erwin Helfer, Billy Branch, Mud Morganfield, the Kinsey Report, Tail Dragger, and Jamiah Rogers. Wed 9/1 through Mon 9/6, various times and venues (B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, GMan Tavern, Golden Dagger, the Hideout, Martyrs’, the Promontory, the Quarry, Reggies, Rosa’s Lounge, Taylor Street Tap), all shows free, 21+

Austin: West Side Blues Featuring Lurrie Bell, Vance Kelly, Mzz Reese, Jimmy Burns, Mary Lane, and Larry Taylor. Sun 9/12, noon-8 PM, Chicago Avenue and Mayfield, free, all ages