Thursday, June 30, 2005

CHICAGO BLUES FEST WRAPUP, PART II (Scroll down for the scintillatin' Part I)

Saturday evening's bandshell shows more than held my attention. Another Wolf veteran, guitarist Jody Williams, performed an outstanding set. Backed by the Willie Henderson Horns, Williams laid down some beautiful jazzy jump blues and proved he'd lost little of his fat tone after a long lay off from the stage. Incredibly versatile guitarist Bob Margolin followed with the revue-type show with which he's been touring the past few years. Margolin generously shared the spotlight with fellow Muddy Waters alum Wille Big Eyes Smith, Wolf's right-hand axman Hubert Sumlin and the show-stealing Pinetop Perkins, another cat up around the 90 mark who, despite springing out of a wheelchair to the piano bench, still smacks the hell out of the 88s and sings strong and randy as a goat.

Then, it was star time as Koko Taylor hit the stage. Radiant in a sparkling silver gown, the blues shouter was in top voice as she belted out faves from her songbook such as "Come to Mama," "Evil" and the more-recent vintage "Ernestine" before knocking it out of the park with her classic "Wang Dang Doodle," which had everyone on their feet and yelling "all night long."

In contrast, headliner Buddy Guy, as usual, was more sizzle than steak. Of course, he pulled out all his tricks, including wading through the crowd as he played his cordless Strat, really not saying anything of interest. Perhaps some ritalin would help, too, as Guy never once finished a song, just flitting from one to the next with no focus; it grew tedious. To be fair, however, the crowd ate it up. Buddy Guy in Chicago can do no wrong.

I know this is getting long, so let me just mention a few more highlights: "mercurial son" Lurrie Bell, knocking out an appreciative hometown crowd with an excellent set featuring his searing guitar and then welcoming harp-legend dad Carey Bell to join him on-stage; pretty much all of the gospel performers who took over the Front Porch Sunday, but especially the brother-and-sister team of pianist Geraldine and vocalist Donald Gray, and sacred-steel virtuouso Calvin Cooke, whose grace and beauty and melding of old and new school make Robert Randolph look like a wanker; Howard Scott's Southside Revue, featuring outrageous soul singer Stan Mosely and a band tighter than church shoes; and last but not least, closing it all out, the wonderful Mavis Staples, returning warm feelings for her Chicago crowd and performing knockout renditions of Staples singers staples such as "Respect Yourself," "The Weight" and, of course, "I'll Take You There."

As I stated in my previous post, this year's blues fest was as good as any I've attended. Although organizers have been criticized in the past for the lack of big stars (at least by blues world standards), sometimes it's the obscure, overlooked vets and performers plugging away night after night in the clubs who make this event so special.

COMING UP: We hit some jazz and blues clubs, eat some pizza and a big-ass steak and spend hours happily flipping records at the incomparable Jazz Record Mart

Maybe it was my six-year absence, but I think this year's Chicago Blues Fest was as good as any I've attended (this was No. 11 for me). The 22nd edition of the event, which took place June 9-12, honored the centennials of Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Walker and Big Maceo, so there was plenty of rollicking piano music to be heard throughout the weekend. The festival also devoted generous stage space to the city's own blues treasures, so in addition to big-name hometown heroes Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor, festgoers were also treated to performances by Erwin Helfer, Little Sonny Scott Jr. with Dancin' Perkins (a personal fave) and Howard Scott's Southside Revue.

The action began each day on the Juke Joint Stage, tipping off with ripping piano performances by the classy Helfer, who perfectly captures the elegant rumble of Chicago boogie and blues; the extremely entertaining Piano Willie, whose amiable, laidback demeanor reminded me of Hoagy Carmichael; and the astounding Detroit boogie master Bob Seeley, who kept folks jumping even in the late afternoon swelter. The stage also hosted Little Sonny Scott Jr., who plays percussion with what he calls "house keys," a long chain containing just that, as well as other rattling elements. His phenomenal band included bassist Robert Dancin' Perkins, who lived up to his name as he juked and jived behind his instrument, and provided the solid rhythm he honed as the founder of the pre-Magic Slim Teardrops.

Another highlight was a dynamic soul-blues performance on the Crossroads Stage by Chicago favorite Tommy McCracken, a veteran entertainer with huge chops and rock star moves, which were just hilarious considering his considerable girth. McCracken hit some notes so high and pure, it raised the hairs on my arm; his version of Bobby Blue Bland's "I'll Take Care of You" was shiver-inducing.

Yet another highlight of the Crossroads Stage, Robert Lockwood Jr., who turns 90 this year, led a wonderfully jazzy octet, a nice change from all the solo performances and recordings on which he interprets his stepfather Robert Johnson's songs. While he did indeed play some of Johnson's legendary songbook, and appeared with his signature blue 12-string, Lockwood, dressed to the nines in a sharp suit despite the brutal heat, took them up from the Delta with citified renditions and an outstanding horn section.

Honoring Sunnyland Slim, as the festival does each year, Barrelhouse Chuck Goering performed a heartfelt set of classic Chicago blues piano, accompanied by a mandolinist, before welcoming to the Front Porch Stage yet another blues legend: Henry Gray. With a derby-like hat perched jaunitly atop his head, the Louisiana piano master and longtime Howlin' Wolf sideman performed an excellent set of blues, boogies and straightup rockers.

Each night of the festival caps off with performances at the Petrillo Band Shell, and Thursday began auspiciously with a 90th-birthday set from Honeyboy Edwards, who, like Lockwood, inherited the Robert Johnson legacy from the man himself. Edwards' strong, ghostly vocals floated out over the crowd, and his picking still resonated with echoes of his life and legend, bolstered by sensitive and simpatico backing from Earwig chief Michael Franks on harp, bassist Aron Burton and drummer Sam Lay. Unfortunately, Edwards' set was followed by an unlistenable one by Kim Simmonds, on hand to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Savoy Brown. The set seemed wildly out of place, like some classic rock bar band had clambered on-stage at a major blues fest; I made it through about three songs before wandering off.

COMING UP: Part II of Blues Fest wrapup, plus drinkin' and drinkin' in tunes in some of Chicago's jazz and blues clubs

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