Down Home Meets Uptown at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival

by Niles Frantz

I just can't keep from smiling. Walking up Jackson Boulevard, past the Art Institute and the police barriers, seeing the colorful canvas tops of the first few vendor booths and hearing the blues pouring out of the P.A. Its Blues Fest time again in Chicago, the biggest and best blues festival in the world - and its free.

The 1995 Chicago Blues Festival saluted what they called The Class of 1915, honoring the 80th birthdays of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Johnny Shines, Eddie Boyd and Josh White. Members of the "class" performing at the event included David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Robert Junior Lockwood, Floyd McDaniel and Brownie McGhee.

This year's Chicago Blues Festival showcased more than 40 artists on three stages over a jam-packed (literally!) three days. And that doesn't begin to take into account the action in the city's blues clubs all week. So, rather than trying to detail each artists' performance -- I didn't get to see them all, anyway -- here are some of the highlights of this year's festival.

As it has been for the last few years, the festival was opened by Othar Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from Mississippi. Their sweet sounds of celebration brought us back down south, a reminder of where the blues started. Billy Branch and "Blues in the Schools" followed, another festival tradition, the harmonica hero leading his classroom of kids through blues standards including Stormy Monday and the inevitable Got My Mojo Working. Branch and his band, The SOBs, also got a chance to spotlight several songs from their new Verve/Polygram CD.

David "Honeyboy" Edwards, the seemingly ageless master of Delta blues, played with the energy of a man half his age. He rendered tunes such as Catfish Blues and Little Boy Blue with startling intensity and sparkling wit, his effervescent smile shining through the light rain. Another Mississippi-born veteran, Dave Myers, a former member of the Aces, supplied animated rhythm parts behind both newcomer Keb' Mo' and living legend Robert Junior Lockwood. Mo' joined Myers for I'm A King Bee before launching a short but well-received solo set. The young, handsome man was a definite crowd pleaser, and his strong guitar and vocals delivered the goods on Robert Johnson covers and some original songs. Always a reliable if not particularly exciting performer, Lockwood delivered classics including How Long Blues and Stop Breaking Down to an appreciative audience probably more aware of his connection to Robert Johnson than his fine original material.

Floyd McDaniel and the Blues Swingers opened the main stage show Friday with a swinging, jazzy set prominently featuring McDaniel's T-Bone inspired guitar. The star of the night, however, was the one and only Bobby Rush. Rush's set of funky blues and bluesy funk, mixed with his company of sexy dancers and outrageous stage antics, amazed and delighted the crowd. Rush revamped Muddy Waters' I'm Ready as a stanky funk. He also steamed through his own classics like Chicken Heads and Sue, and spiced up I Ain't Studdin' You and several others with some very credible harmonica playing. His dancers, both male and female, shook their stuff for the people, and Rush had the crowd rolling in the aisles with humorous raps about relationships -- mostly about cheating.

Fat Possum Records' Mississippi Juke Joint Caravan woke us all up on Saturday with a generous taste of what's happening now in the Delta. David Thompson and Big Love, from Greenville, Mississippi, played in a contemporary, high-energy style, with evident rock and funk influences. Junior Kimbrough followed, though his set of brooding, droning, modal blues never really caught fire. On the other hand, R.L. Burnside's band, with Big Jack Johnson on bass, cranked out ferocious, driving grooves that had everyone, right out to the boats on nearby Lake Michigan, rocking! Burnside's slide guitar on Diving Duck and Shake Em On Down rang out strong and clear, pushing the music forward in all its slightly ragged glory. Definitely one of the killer sets of the weekend.

Sherman Robertson and Johnny Heartsman each did fine sets of music, showcasing tight ensemble work and keen senses of melody. Robertson mixed Elmore James and Freddie King covers with songs from his debut album I'm The Man. His guitar solos were clean and focused, mixing bursts of speed with inventive, melodic runs. Multi-instrumentalist Heartsman played keyboards, guitar and flute throughout a set of characteristically breezy, lightly funky blues. Things bogged down when one of the background vocalists whipped out a fiddle and led the group through an agonizing version of Iko Iko.

Saturday's knockout main stage show featured three guitarists from Chicago's west side -- Eddie C. Campbell, Luther Allison and Otis Rush. Campbell, decked out in colorful dashiki and fringed suede boots, delivered a tough and entertaining set dominated by his warm, inviting vocals and stinging, heavily reverbed guitar sound. On the set closer, The Things I Used To Do, Campbell cranked up the showbiz, playing the guitar with his teeth and feet.

Next on the stage, Luther Allison became the festival's conquering hero, playing with unbridled passion and savage energy. He sang of love and trouble with passion and commitment. Whether playing fast shuffles, slow blues or funky grooves, Allison fired off one incredible solo after another from his gold-top Les Paul. Tipping his hat to Hound Dog Taylor and Elmore James, Allison brought out the slide for Give Me Back My Wig and It Hurts Me Too, wringing exquisite squeals and cries from his guitar and a thunderous standing ovation from the audience.

Otis Rush responded by following Allison with one of the strongest, most consistent sets he's done in a long, long time. But the damage had been done; it was Allison's night. In the jam that followed, all three guitarists took the stage for a stunning slow blues that started off as Gambler's Blues with Rush and Allison trading phrases and echoing each other's riffs. Allison then came to the fore, shifting the tune into Sweet Little Angel and ripping off a monster solo. People were either screaming their lungs out, or struck dumb with admiration and wonder.

Acoustic players made the day on Sunday, most notably a rare appearance by the great Brownie McGhee. Harmonica Fats (very aptly named) has a blues shouter's voice; rough, almost like a preacher's. Together with his partner, guitarist Bernie Pearl, he performed straight-ahead acoustic blues, including some amusing lyrics on songs like I'm In Love With Three Women and Just Like Richard Nixon. Saffire - The Uppity Blues Women introduced a new song inspired by Koko Taylor. A succession of pianists, including Barrelhouse Chuck, Erwin Helfer, Mark Naftalin, Love Lee, Ann Rabson and Jimmy Walker (from the class of 1905!) participated in a touching memorial for the late Sunnyland Slim.

Brownie McGhee did two sets at the festival: one at the Front Porch Stage and one at the Petrillo Band Shell (main stage). At the Front Porch, Jerry Ricks (the artist formerly known as Philadelphia Jerry Ricks) played Jim Jackson's Bring It With You When You Come, Stag-O-Lee and Swing Low Sweet Chariot before McGhee's entrance. Brownie came on stage to a standing ovation, and then tore into I'm A Stranger Here. His voice strong and clear, and his ragtimey blues guitar chops mostly intact, McGhee performed Jump Children Jump, Walk On and Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee with confidence and conviction. He was joined for several songs by a group including two acoustic guitars, acoustic bass and harmonica. The band then left and Ricks joined him for Key to the Highway and Brownie's Cure -- a description of his "new way of loving."

Later in the day, at the main stage, McGhee dipped deeper into his huge repertoire for Don't You Lie To Me and Goin' To Move To Kansas City. The acoustic band again joined in on Blues Had A Baby, and Sugar Blue contributed to a reprise of Walk On. McGhee's sets were a pleasure, and superb cappers to a wonderful weekend of music.

Attending the Chicago Blues Festival is a must for all blues lovers. Its combination of down home and uptown styles, plus the white-hot activity in the clubs afterwards, set it apart from any other blues festival. Think about it for next year.

Niles Frantz lives in Chicago and writes regularly about blues for Blues Revue, Juke Joint Notes and the newsletter of the Philadelphia Blues Machine. His work has been published in Living Blues, Blues & Rhythm, Juke Blues, and Chicago Blues magazines. Niles contributed more than 100 reviews to the All Music Guide, now available in book form, CD-ROM and on the Internet.

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