The 1996 Chicago Blues Festival

by Niles Frantz

The 13th Chicago Blues Festival -- "I Ain't Superstitious, Black Cat Cross My Trail" -- celebrated history and tradition while introducing listeners to the next generation of blues artists. Tributes this year included remembrances of Reverend Gary Davis, Reverend Robert Wilkins and Howlin' Wolf, and a salute to Alligator Records' 25th Anniversary. At the same time, three very talented young acoustic bluesmen -- Corey Harris, Alvin "Youngblood" Hart and Guy Davis -- gave blues fans some inkling of where the music is headed.

The 13th Chicago Blues Festival celebrated its 13th-ness -- honoring traditional spirituality while laughing in the face of superstition. Afro-Cuban musicians Armando Sanchez y Conjunto Son de la Loma rejoiced in the power of Santeria. Screamin' Jay Hawkins brought peals of laughter through his absurd mixture of self-parody and riotous rock and roll.

The 13th Chicago Blues Festival had a lot of good things, some not so good things and a couple questionable things. So, here we go.

Friday, May 31, 1996

Even though it was the 13th Chicago Blues Festival, it started off lucky. On opening day, blues fans were blessed with the best weather in Chicago so far this year. Otha Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band opened each day of the festival from the Front Porch Stage, as they have for the last few years, bringing the flavor of northern Mississippi hill country to the proceedings. Turner was followed on Friday by Armando Sanchez y Conjunto Son de la Loma, purveyors of "el son," the traditional Cuban music that gave birth to "salsa." The early crowd was treated to tasty tidbits of roots rhythms, laced through with the mystical power of Santeria, the powerful Afro-Cuban religion.

Over at the Crossroads Stage, traditionally a showcase for Chicago's finest electric bands, Romancing The Stones spotlighted three unsigned guitarists: Will Crosby, Quintus McCormick and Anthony Palmer. Chicago powerhouse Jimmy Dawkins acted as emcee and opened the set before handing off to Crosby. The young man opened with a fast blues instrumental, tearing crying tones out of his black sunburst Strat, then reined things in for an aching version of Sweet Little Angel featuring vocalist Mike Avery.

The 1996 festival introduced a small fourth stage, the Juke Joint, for acoustic and solo performances. Eddie Shaw started things off on vocals, sax and harp, joined by his son, Eddie, Jr. (aka "Vaan"), on acoustic guitar. A rockin' version of Built for Comfort foreshadowed the tribute to Howlin' Wolf held later that evening at the main stage.

Back at the Front Porch, Homesick James joyously performed the first of three scheduled sets over the weekend. The 80-plus-year-old gentleman discharged his blues with abundant energy, comparing himself to the devil and pounding on a big-bodied electric resonator guitar. Homesick's dynamism carried the set, as his vocals were garbled and his guitar playing weak. Dave Myers of The Aces followed with a well-received set of elegant yet strongly Delta-influenced blues, highlighted by a slow, finger-picked version of Five Long Years. Myers still has plenty of chops left in his 70-year-old fingers.

Lonnie and Ronnie Baker Brooks traded acoustic riffs at the Juke Joint, in a setting much more subdued than their usual high-energy stage show. Ronnie led off with Key to the Highway and Pride and Joy. Lonnie countered with Hoochie Coochie Man and You Don't Have To Go. The relaxed, intimate setting brought big smiles and warm comments from the father and son team.

Though obviously physically weak and wheelchair bound, 93-year-old Diamond Teeth Mary McClain's strength of spirit carried her through a set of spirituals and blues. Growing stronger and more assured as the set progressed, McClain performed Let the Good Times Roll and You Can Have My Husband sandwiched between Amazing Grace, Down By The Riverside and When The Saints Go Marching In. Just when the songs seemed to be petering out, McClain would bring them back for chorus after chorus, raising her hands to the heavens and refusing to be beaten by time. Hints of an Alberta Hunter-like sassiness peeked through on the secular numbers while a deep reverence informed the spirituals.

The Sons of Blues with Billy Branch and Carl Weathersby kicked things off at the Petrillo Music Shell (main stage). Weathersby sounded strong vocally and showed some fierce guitar work. With his growth as lead performer, and his new solo album for Evidence Music, Weathersby fronted the band on more than half the songs, including All Your Affection Is Gone and a cover of Polk Salad Annie. The SOBs, with Nick Charles on bass and Moses Rutues on drums, whipped up a gargantuan groove behind Branch on Flamin' Mamie.

I Ain't Superstitious, a tribute to Howlin' Wolf, had all the ingredients to pay appropriate tribute to the legendary bluesman while still rocking the house. However, despite the stellar line-up of Wolf's former band members -- Eddie Shaw (sax) and the Wolf Gang, Hubert Sumlin (guitar), Little Smokey Smothers (guitar), Detroit Junior (piano), Abb Locke (sax), Lester "Mad Dog " Davenport (harmonica), Chico Chism (drums) and Big Mojo Elem (bass) -- the thing never really caught fire. They did play the Wolf's songs, the Wolf Gang was tight as always, and Smothers and Elem came off the best in their guest slots. Before the music started, legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips was given the Howlin' Wolf Award.

Lonnie Brooks, ageless and consistent, closed day one of the festival on a high note with a powerful set of mostly original material, including a song from his new Alligator album to be released in July. More energetic now than he was a decade ago, Brooks and band powered through Wife For Tonight and A Man's Got To Do What A Man's Got To Do before closing with Sweet Home Chicago. Brooks gave his son Ronnie plenty of solo space throughout the set; the respect and affection between the two is obvious. At one point, the elder Brooks walked across the stage to where the younger man was firing off some SRV-like pyrotechnics and started playing rhythm figures on the bass strings of Ronnie's guitar -- as he continued to solo!

Saturday, June 1, 1996

Saturday was rainy, and the schedule of performers became confused and confusing. It was hard to tell who was playing when. The crowds were down and so was the energy level of the artists, with a few startling exceptions.

David "Honeyboy" Edwards continues to seemingly defy time. He remains a skilled and vital performer, with immense dignity and power. Versions of West Helena Blues, Magic Sam's All Your Love, and a driving and rhythmic Catfish Blues shook the early morning crowd out of their collective drowsiness. A chaotic rendition of Freddie King's Hideaway was charming and delightful.

Homesick James went home, sick, abandoning his Saturday slot in favor of Lurrie Bell. One version of the story says that Lurrie, impulsive as he can be, simply went up on the Front Porch stage and started playing (he was scheduled to play the next set), driving Homesick to leave in a huff. Bell forged on, accompanied by just bass and drums, concluding his short set with Magic Sam's Honey, I Need You So Bad and Got My Mojo Working. Only a few minutes later, Bell returned to the Front Porch for his regularly scheduled set. Despite the guitarist's reputation for being wildly erratic, the set was a scorcher. Delmark Records labelmate Karen Carroll joined Bell for about 20 minutes of the 50-minute show, bellowing Sonny Boy II's Help Me and Sweet Home Chicago.

South Side mainstay Vance Kelly's set at the Front Porch gave the assembled a taste of the contemporary black club experience, including soul-drenched renditions of hits from Johnny Taylor, James Brown, the Temptations, Rufus Thomas and Albert King. Kelly, who also featured original songs from his two Wolf CDs, is a compelling vocalist and an underrated guitarist. He is one to watch.

Capping the evening in grand style on the main stage, Trudy Lynn and Francine Reed lit up the rain-soaked night with their vibrancy and vocal dynamics. Reed's deep, rich, round voice, which earlier had captivated the afternoon crowd during two a cappella songs at the Juke Joint, wrapped itself lovingly around Trouble In Mind and got down in the alley on Evil Gal Blues and Wild Women Don't Get The Blues.

Trudy Lynn took the stage in glitter and baubles, and raised the heat even higher. She kicked things off with the rocking Loose Lips, then moved into a bold reading of the salacious Two Girls for the Price of One. The lights and the tempo came way down for a medley of When Something Is Wrong With My Baby and I've Been Loving You Too Long. Lynn brought things back up with a swaggering rendition of 24 Hour Woman followed by a sexy, soulful Instant Breakfast. I left then because of the rain, but I hear the ladies joined forces on an encore medley of blues classics.

Sunday, June 2, 1996

Sunday again proved lucky weather-wise, for Saturday's gloomy raininess had been predicted to continue. Happily, as blues lovers awoke Sunday morning after a night in the clubs, they saw that the sun shone brightly and was working hard to dry the ground at the festival site.

Otha Turner and his fife and drum corps, acting as some kind of late morning rooster, helped bring the audience back to life and wakefulness. Next, young acoustic bluesman Guy Davis entertained with a set of traditionally styled blues on gruff vocals, 6- and 12-string guitars and harmonica. After a rousing version of Walking Blues, Davis exhorted the audience to "turn this whole field into a Baptist church." Leading his "congregation" in clapping and stomping, Davis sang a story of growth and raised expectations called New Shoes.

A little later at the Front Porch, Jerry Ricks, David Bromberg and Andy Cohen led a heartfelt and moving tribute to the Reverend Gary Davis. Cohen, a fixture on the folk scene, had the best grasp on Davis' intricate guitar style. Playing a big jumbo Gibson, as Davis did, he performed Samson and Delilah, Come Down and See Me Sometime and United States March. Bromberg, briefly giving up his retirement as a violin maker, graced the audience with an complex instrumental and a version of (Wading Through Deep Water) Trying to Get Home. Ricks performed Death Don't Have No Mercy and, assuming a now well-deserved patriarchal role, encouraged the others on stage to play with him on Worried Blues. The three guitarists were joined on stage by Tiny Robinson, niece of the late Martha Ledbetter (Leadbelly's wife), who handled Davis' business affairs in New York. Robinson told loving and humorous stories of the Reverend Davis, as did each of the musicians before their songs. This performance, as I hope you can tell, was a treat.

At the same time, on the Crossroads Stage, Pete Mayes and his Texas House Rockers were living up to their name. Mayes, walking with a cane and sporting a bright red suit, romped through a T-Bone-style medley of Kidney Stew and Society Woman, before remaking Sweet Home Chicago as a Texas shuffle. Mayes then called up Texas Johnny Brown, smashingly decked out in purple, who whipped into Every Day I Have The Blues. Brown then performed solo versions of Key to the Highway and Crawlin' Kingsnake before cranking the band back up for a duet with Mayes on Cherry Red. Trying to make himself heard over the screaming crowd, Mayes then introduced Jimmy "T99" Nelson. Moving slowly onto the stage with the help of his cane, Nelson opened with an uptempo That's All Right, then launched into another version of Cherry Red. Mayes closed the set with Rock This Joint. And that's just what they did!

Back at the Front Porch, Dr. David Evans and David "Honeyboy" Edwards paid tribute to Tommy Johnson through songs and stories. Evans, a well-known blues writer, researcher and educator, also is an excellent guitarist. His guitar parts on Canned Heat Blues, Prison Bound and Maggie Campbell sounded right off the scratchy old 78s. Honeyboy, on the other hand, played his own versions of Johnson's songs. He rendered Jack of Diamonds accompanied by eerie slide guitar and executed his own take on Johnson's Big Road Blues. Honey, a longtime Chicagoan, was humble about his ability to play traditional Delta blues. He told Evans, "I been off these blues 25 or 30 years, but I do know some of them."

Lane Wilkins, granddaughter of Memphis bluesman turned gospel singer Rev. Robert T. Wilkins, performed a tribute to her grandfather accompanied by skilled acoustic guitarist Eric Nosen. Wilkins' stories and remembrances were full of affection and mirth.

Bobby Parker wrestled with his equipment at the Crossroads so much that it distracted from what would otherwise have been an excellent set. When he was onstage, everything worked fine, and Parker and band performed searing versions of Drowning On Dry Land and Stepping Out/Stepping In. However, when Parker tried to leave the stage to walk through the audience, his wireless system cut out, spitting sheets of blasting white noise through his amplifier. For four consecutive tunes he stepped off the stage and tried to make his guitar work, only to crush the first few rows with ridiculous noise. Ouch.

Closing night performers at the Petrillo Band Shell showed the breadth and strength of blues, and concluded the festival in spectacular fashion. Southern soul stylist Willie Clayton brought with him a full show band, including three lovely female vocalists, to support his strong, gospel-influenced voice. From the funky Rocking Chair through a medley of soul classics into a full-out Elvis impersonation, Clayton raised his exultant voice yet still left room for tons of fun. His hits Three People (Sleeping In My Bed) and Equal Opportunity had the crowd boogieing in their seats. He left them screaming for more.

Actress and singer Sue Conway followed with her interpretation of "classic" blues. To listeners brought up on Koko Taylor and Etta James, Conway's voice likely sounded stagy and "correct." That her band, Just Friends, was working from sheet music, did nothing to dispel that sterile feeling.

Texas border-town legend Long John Hunter followed, with a hot band and bunch of songs from his new album. Hunter's tough guitar playing and distinctive voice powered Oh Red and his remake of Little Milton's Grits Ain't Groceries. Hunter's skills as a showman, developed during his stint in Juarez, Mexico, remain intact. He danced about the stage quite deftly and, in the middle of one slow blues, walked off stage right and laid his guitar in a woman's lap while continuing to play it. Joining Hunter halfway through the set was former Texan by way of California, Phillip Walker, for their first performance together in 38 years. Walker started out with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, but things really got hot during Crazy Girl with the two guitarists trying to outdo each other. Hunter played a solo with one hand; Walker played one with his teeth. Then they started trading phrases, each trying to be wilder than the other.

Only one man could appropriately close the 13th Chicago Blues Festival -- the one and only Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Hawkins possesses an amazing voice, with outstanding range and control, but the music is almost incidental to his personality and sense of theater. Dime-store fright props littered Hawkins' piano, including a huge rabid rat, a motorized severed hand and a hopping black spider. Set on a platform just to Hawkins' left were a toilet (for Constipation Blues) and a coffin (sadly never used). The singer, decked out all in red with a long feather boa, assaulted the crowd with classics including Ben E. King's Stand By Me and Jimmy Reed's Baby, What You Want Me To Do, along with Leiber and Stoller's Alligator Wine. In about as incongruous a pairing as anyone could imagine, the inevitable I Put A Spell On You was followed by Little Bitty Pretty One. But the songs hardly mattered. Hawkins' shouts and screams, the 3-foot-long (plastic) bone he frantically waived and the tiny one he put in his nose, and, most of all, the walking staff complete with cigarette smoking skull, brought broad smiles and hearty guffaws from even the most hardened, long-time blues fans.

A Couple Things . . .

While the festival was undoubtedly a success, a couple points need to be made that might improve the event for the future:

This year's festival introduced a new fourth stage, the Juke Joint, intended to capture the intimate, impromptu feel of Southern joints. This is a very good idea that needs some fine tuning. The stage was not raised off the ground, and it was hard to see the performers. Also, the stage area is so small that very few people could get close enough to see.

The House of Blues, soon to be a presence in Chicago, brought up Muddy Waters' house from Mississippi and stuck it, rather incongruously, in the middle of Columbus Avenue. In the newly refurbished shack you could see displays of Muddy's record albums, but you couldn't see how he lived. You could hear his music playing, but you couldn't feel where that music came from. I would like to have learned more about how a family lived and worked in that small space. In my opinion, it would have been just as well to leave the house where it was, in its original environment, and make enhancements to the building and site to improve it as a place of pilgrimage and learning. A replica house could have been built for traveling; the original was so dilapidated anyway, nearly complete rebuilding must have had to be done.

There were three very odd things about the line-up:

Corey Harris, as talented as he is, need not have played six sets in three days. There are a number of other artists -- from Jack Owens to Jimmy Lee Robinson to Catfish Keith -- who were not booked for the festival (or who were booked but only played one set; i.e., Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, Guy Davis) who could have benefited from the exposure while the audience enjoyed a more diverse line-up.

Similarly, why was Homesick James booked to play all three days at the Front Porch? See above; substitute Bob Gaddy, Robert Lockwood, Brewer Phillips, Henry Townsend, etc.

Who is Sue Conway? Why was she on the main stage and not one of a dozen or more available women blues singers?

The Club Scene and Other Happenings

One of the things that makes the Chicago Blues Festival such a special musical event is the action in the clubs and alternate venues each evening after the festival. Here are some examples:

Wolf Records from Austria held a showcase Thursday night, May 30, at the world-renowned Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago's South Side. Vance Kelly was the headliner, celebrating his new release Joyriding In The Subway. Other performers included L.V. Banks, Johnny Laws, John Primer, and Tre (who actually records for JSP). It was a party of major proportions, featuring Kelly's massive, 60-minute blues/R&B;/funk medley and Primer playing while standing on a table in the middle of the funky little room.

Delmark Records and the Jazz Record Mart (JRM), both captained by Bob Koester, held a couple outstanding events during the festival, most notably an incendiary Saturday morning performance by Byther Smith. Perhaps 50 people crammed into JRM's small performance space at 10 a.m. to hear Smith and his new group make their way through nearly two hours of material from his soon to be released debut album for Delmark plus a series of older songs and driving instrumentals. Smith's band featured Greg McDaniel, son of the recently departed Floyd McDaniel, on bass. During the set, Smith was joined by labelmates Big Time Sarah and Barkin' Bill. It is very, very rare to get this much good blues before noon. Now that Byther Smith has retired from his factory job and is concentrating fully on music, this will be his year. Just you watch.

JRM also hosted two performances by Jimmy Burns, younger brother of Detroit bluesman Eddie Burns. Playing in a trio that included Larry Taylor, son of the late Eddie Taylor, on drums, Burns worked through a wide variety of blues and soul covers spotlighting his very attractive voice and solid guitar skills. He also took a turn on solo acoustic covering Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Arthur Crudup. Burns closed the night with two original tunes, Leaving Here Walking and Annie Lou, that may be featured on his upcoming Delmark CD. Should be a good one.

Finally, the Foundation for the Advancement of the Blues, a Chicago non-profit organization, sponsored a Vintage Chicago Blues event at Blue Chicago on Sunday night, June 2. Performers included Detroit Junior, Little Smokey Smothers and Willie Kent, all ably backed by the Aron Burton Band.

Niles Frantz lives in Chicago and writes about blues. His work has been published in Blues Revue, Living Blues, Blues & Rhythm, Juke Blues, and Chicago Blues magazines, and in the All Music Guide. Niles was recently named editor of The BlueScene, the newsletter of Chicago's Foundation for the Advancement of the Blues. Niles is the emcee of the annual Pocono Blues Festival.

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