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You've Got the Blues

Everything you need to know about the 2009 Chicago Blues Festival.
Wednesday Jun 03, 2009.     By Gavin Paul
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

The economy apparently didn't spare the Chicago Blues Festival, as the world's largest free blues event has been slimmed down to a three-day concert this year. But organizers made up for the loss of a day with the fest's most diverse line-up yet, once again weaving still-standing icons with the latest torchbearers of the genre. This year will see everything from Maxwell Street performer reunions to the Blues Fest's first DJ set. Here's the full story on all the performers:

Friday

Blues In The Schools presents The Stone Academy All stars w/ Katherine Davis, Carl Weathersby & Eric Noden
noon, Front Porch
The famous non-profit program for lil' blues enthusiasts hosts a pseudo-fundraiser featuring three of Chicago's finest teachers and performers: Noden, a resonator guitarist found at Old Town School of Folk Music courses, Kingston Mines regular Carl Weathersby and the sassy, opera-trained Katherine Davis.

Gloria Thompson Rogers
1:30 p.m., Front Porch
After training under Otis Clay as a teen in the '70s, this budding diva put her music career on hold for a decade and a half to raise a family, during which time she went through a veritable "blues school," sitting in with South Side slingers like Buddy Scott and Vance Kelly over at Lee's Unleaded Blues. When a second chance came knocking, she signed to Delmark and has cut two albums to date. Critics have compared her choir-meets-gritty pipes with those of Koko Taylor and Tina Turner.

Mud MorganfieldMud Morganfield
Big Bill & Mud Morganfield w/ Pinetop Perkins & Willie "Big Eyes" Smith
3 p.m., Front Porch
Sons of the late Muddy Waters, Big Bill and Mud Morganfield both carry themselves like the ghost of their father. In fact, their booming soul so resembles his that the drummer (Smith) and keys man (Perkins) from Muddy's original band – both icons in their own right – have agreed to round out the lineup.

Andrew Jr. Boy Jones
5 p.m., Front Porch
Another bluesman with a long career and a short catalogue, Dallas-bred singer/guitarist, Andrew Jones, has contributed to over four decades of timeless albums and tours. Freddie King was the first in a line of stalwarts to recruit Jones's talents when he invited him on tour at 16; Charlie Musselwhite, Katie Webster and R.L. Griffin were among those who followed. On his own, Jones generally pays homage to the hot-step part of the blues genre, with plenty of Ray Charles influence.

Charlie Musselwhite Band
6:30 p.m., Front Porch
The purported inspiration for Dan Aykroyd's Blues Brothers role, harpist Charlie Musselwhite has huffed his way through four decades of rock 'n' roll history, alongside everyone from John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters to Tom Waits and Eddie Vedder. Vocally, he also sounds a heck of a lot like Johnny Cash.

Chicago Blues Experience feat. Vince Agwada & Russ Green
1 p.m., Gibson Crossroads Stage
Young harp player Russ Green once aimed to become the "Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica" - that was before he met mentor Sugar Blue, who clearly already had the title. Green co-leads this fuzzy, modern-electric outfit perfect for posters of quintessential Chicago blues, save for guitarist Vince Agwada's bursts of rock showmanship.

Mary Lane's Blues All Stars
2:30 p.m., Gibson Crossroads Stage
West Side vocalist Mary Lane started out in the '50s with Magic Sam, Otis Rush and slide-guitar master Elmore James by her side. She seemed destined for stardom with her chug-a-lug, diva energy, but things didn't quite happen that way. She reemerges with her bass-playing husband, Morris Pejoe, from time to time in sporadic suburban appearances; this should be her largest audience all year.

Sherman "Moody" Thomas & The Lee's Unleaded Revue
4 p.m., Gibson Crossroads Stage
A Blues Fest newbie, this South Side regular walks an entertaining line between showy cheese and soulful style, offering R&B love (he's "God's gift to you," ladies) backed by an 8-bit Casio. And that's before mentioning earmuff-worthy cuts "Dirty Old Man" and "Dip My Dipper."

Grana' Louise
6 p.m., Gibson Crossroads Stage
Bessie Smith channeler Grana' is Chicago's big, brassy feather-boa mistress, specializing in bold blues cuts with equally bold titles like "Annie's Fanny," and "Queen Bee." Sometimes swaying into gospel and soul territory, Grana' commandeers The Troublemakers as if every night were a headlining gig at the Apollo, which is why her debut, Hit The Big Time, sold out of every pressing. Watch for her dance steps.

Charles Charles "Wsir" Johnson
Charles "Wsir" Johnson
12:30 p.m., Front Porch; also Saturday and Sunday, 12:30 p.m., Zone Perfect Route 66 Roadhouse
Storyteller and old-world African instrumentalist, Charles "Wsir" Johnson, creates Udongos, Udus, Cerama-saxes, Akontings, gourd banjos and flutes by hand in hopes of being a "steward of the Earth" and a "beacon for positive social change for the next generation." He's been inspiring everyone from the Mississippi Delta-area school children he plays for, to Chuck D of Public Enemy, the artist who cast Johnson as part of an avant-garde play.

Donna Herula
2:30 p.m., Front Porch
Chicago-born singer/songwriter, Donna Herula, never heard a '20s and '30s bottleneck or slide-guitar tune she didn't like. She does the genre proud with her own set of museum-worthy steel resonators and an almost country bite on the mic. Herula's schooled herself in Robert Nighthawk's oeuvre, and she'll surely give us a taste during the celebration of the late artist's 100th birthday that follows this set.

East of Edens Soul Express
7 p.m., Front Porch; also Saturday and Sunday, 6:30 p.m., Zone Perfect Route 66 Roadhouse
Best known for its Saturday-night residencies at the Hideout, this DJ duo has an intense retro love for Southern soul and blues circa '60s and '70s Chicago, but makes sure to mix it up with contemporaries like Common in the interest of putting bodies on the dance floor.

Eddie Taylor Jr. w/ Harmonica Hinds
noon, Mississippi Juke Joint
One of the many sons of top-notch drummer, Eddie Taylor Sr., the younger Eddie offers stretched-out covers of his father's oeuvre on his instrument of choice, the guitar. Session star for the likes of John Primer and Koko Taylor, harpist/guitarist Mervyn "Harmonica" Hinds adds some '50s post-war class.

Maxwell Street Revisited: featuring Dancin' Perkins, Iceman Robinson, Smilin' Bobby, Bobby Too Tough and Frank "Lil' Sonny" Scott Jr.
noon, Mississippi Juke Joint
Maxwell Street's storied finest unite, from the 74-years-young cat-walking of Dancin' Perkins to the last man standing before UIC put an end to things, Frank "Lil' Sonny" Scott Jr.

Sam Lay
3:30 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
The drummer behind the greatest records of icons like Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Bob Dylan (the epic Highway 61; he was also on sticks at the Newport Folk Festival when the D-man went electric), Lay has too many accolades to count. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Memphis Blues Hall of Fame, the list goes on.

Fernando Jones and the Columbia College Blues Ensemble
5 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
Jones has been featured on the Travel Channel, "Dateline" and Eric Clapton's Crossroads DVD, along with a fleet of radio and print spots, mostly in promotion of his book, I Was There When The Blues Was Red Hot. He was there, as a guitarist in his youth, and he's still around, working as the teacher of the nation's first collegiate blues ensemble.

Shirley Johnson
7 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
Delmark Records' resident gospel revivalist, Shirley Johnson, started her career when male guitarists dominated the Chicago sound, pursuing diversity along with fellow divas like Zora Young and Sarah Streeter. This campaign eventually paid off with a residency at Blue Chicago, and a place in blues marked with her signature choir-raised soul, which she just loves to dress in horn sections.

Eddie C. CampbellEddie C. Campbell
Eddie C. Campbell's 70th Birthday
8:20 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
Recruited heavily by everyone from Willie Dixon to Howlin' Wolf for his signature, reverb-shimmering West Side tweaks, Campbell got tired of the sideman role. He did some solo gigging in Europe for over a decade, eventually returning to Chicago for the birth of his son. He dropped two classic electric LPs on Blind Pig Records, and a hotly dropped third (May 19) via Delmark, aggressively dubbed Tear This World Up. It'll be promoted in tandem with the largest birthday party for a bluesman ever.

Saturday

Earwig Records Tribute to Sunnyland Slim feat. Aaron Moore, Allen Batts and Dennis Binder
noon, Front Porch
David "Honeyboy" Edwards' hometown label pays homage to his fellow forefather of eclectic blues, Sunnyland Slim, and his flirty bass-key style that influenced generations to come. The tribute is led by one of Sunnyland's old cohorts in the Muddy Waters circle, pianist Aaron Moore, and other historic protégés, Allen Batts and Dennis Binder.

Holle Thee Maxwell
2 p.m., Front Porch
Formerly known as Holly Maxwell, 'thee' operatically (Julliard) trained Maxwell doesn't get much love here in her hometown of Chicago, but has become a staple over in Paris thanks to her sultry, gold-speckled attire and ear for jazz. Expect diva standards like "Respect" and "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On."

Ray Allison
3:30 p.m., Front Porch
Though he made his name as a session guitarist who lurked behind the scenes of over 82 records of blues acts as diverse as Koko Taylor to Muddy Waters, Ray Allison was at first a drummer. He earned the moniker "Killer" for his wide-eyed, "follow me or suffer the consequences" rhythms that shared stages with The Rolling Stones and Carlos Santana, among others. Only since the turn of the millennium did he decide to take up vocal and axe duties in his own band, which can be seen every week at Rosa's Lounge.

Lil' Ed & the Blues ImperialsLil 'Ed & the Blues Imperials
Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials
5 p.m., Front Porch
Lil' Ed's a Blues Fest vet, merging Hound Dog Taylor-type boogie over standard Chicago electric, albeit a couple notches too far right on the amp; this is loud stuff. Every once in a while Lil' Ed will shamble into some slide-guitar tricks he picked up from his uncle, J.B. Hutto.

Nolan Struck w/ King Edward
6:30 p.m., Front Porch
Golden brass and soul dynamo, Nolan Struck journeyed from Louisiana on a breaking bassist gig with Lonnie Smith's band back in the '60s, and has since teamed up with his brother, King Edward, to unleash his Bee Gee vocal range on the blues genre. His charming, showy style has earned the duo more than one appearance at the festival.

Lurrie Bell
8:20 p.m., Gibson Crossroads Stage
Son of late harpist Cary Bell, Lurrie's been itching to make his pappy proud ever since he first picked up the guitar at age 15, and founded what is now Billy Branch's back-up band, The Sons of Blues. Of course, father Carry took him on the road as his guitarist and schooled him proper. And he blew up the charts all by his lonesome with a quartet of LPs on Delmark. But he's forever ingrained with the yearn to step it up a notch. His latest Aria B. G. release, Let's Talk About Love, slings major Delta-twang fury.

Cyrus Hayes & Lady Lee
8:20 p.m., Gibson Crossroads Stage
This husband-and-wife combo oddly prefers to navigate the underground, even with Cyrus's barreling talent on the harp, and Lady Lee's shocking grit. Aside from this spotlight performance, you're lucky to catch the two maybe once a month at Wallace's Catfish Corner.

Travis Haddix
8:20 p.m., Gibson Crossroads Stage
Travis Haddix launched the first three albums of his career while serving as an Ohio postal worker in the 1980s; this is part of the reason why he's known as "Moonchild." Originally a piano player, the Memphis-bred musician fell for B.B. King's anxious guitar work at a young age, quickly brandishing the instrument himself. Paired with the inescapable proximity of Stax Records, Haddix produced brooding modern electric mixed with sweet Southern soul.

Samuel James
4:30 p.m., Zone Perfect Route 66 Roadhouse
Resonator-slick and skilled in the vein of Charley Patton and other pre-war roots musicians, this Maine-based singer/songwriter is like an indie Keb' Mo', except they're both on major labels. Call 'em neo-street musicians without a street, but plenty of talent.

Terry "Harmonica" Bean
12:30 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
The Pontotoc, Mississippi-raised Bean was a stud baseball prospect until he crashed his motorcycle. Subsequently, he began hanging out at his father's Delta stomping grounds and learning the trade, picking the guitar and harp as his instruments of choice. Fans of Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson will not be disappointed in this one-man band.

Eden BrentEden Brent
Eden Brent
2 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
Garnering four nominations at the 30th annual Blues Music Awards, most notably Artist of the Year, Eden Brent's ivory skills and Janis Joplin-esque pipes are being marketed in the same way Norah Jones assaulted Starbucks racks in one-fell-swoop. Key differences: Brent writes her own tunes, and is actually from the area that inspires her.

Lil' Dave Thompson
3:30 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
A fourth-generation Mississippi Delta guitarist and vocalist, Thompson loves his electric funk slants, which he brooded over for years in the hometown of B.B. King. He's dubbed "Lil'" as a nod to his late father, Sam Thompson, who ran in the same circles as other Delta icons like Willie Foster, Asie Payton and Paul Wine Jones.

John Primer & The Real Deal Blues Band
5 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
After cutting licks with Willie Dixon's Chicago All-Stars, this muscle-guitarist saw training under Muddy Waters, and began a solo career shortly thereafter - Waters even allowed the budding musician to open for him on tour. A fanatic of the slide-technique, Primer's usually accompanied by fellow slidestress Joanna Connor about town, but here's a chance to see him with his band.

Demetria Taylor
6:30 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
Another offspring of famed drummer Eddie Taylor, daughter Demetria is the resident vocalist for the family band. Her brother Larry will probably provide backing duties for this jam session.

Trudy Lynn w/ the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings featuring "Daddy G"
6:40 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
Formally known as The Mellow Fellows, backing soul giant Big Twist, the R&B Kings launched their second coming in '93, rounding out massive horn sections with a bellowing behemoth frontman, six-foot-five, 370-pound Ernie Peniston of the Quad Cities area. Making sure that horn section stays massive is iconic saxophonist and record producer (Stax, Chess), Gene Barge. Expect a special appearance here by fellow Stax-styled R&B singer, Trudy Lynn.

Bettye LaVetteBettye LaVette
Bettye LaVette
8:20 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
The soul singer who was too punk for Atlantic Records just continues her comeback with hit after hit on Anti- Records, her new home. Recent highlights include a cover of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" at the Kennedy Center Honors, and an emotional performance of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" at the Presidential inauguration.

Sunday

Lee Boys
noon, Front Porch; 3:30 p.m., Gibson Crossroads Stage
These three brothers of a Southern reverend deal in "Sacred Steel," a form of gospel driven to the heavens via blues, which has become the staple of the Pentecostal church in Jacksonville, Florida. If you take away the context, it's not hard to see the crew entertaining masses of jam-band fans as openers at an Umphrey's McGee.

Christland Singers
1:30 p.m., Front Porch
Originally created by Sam Cooke's right-hand man, R.H. Harris, in the gospel-innovating crew, The Soul Stirrers, the Christland Singers are of huge importance in the transformation of gospel into soul.

Lou Pride & The Blues Disciples
3 p.m., Front Porch
A Milwaukee-area blues super-group, The Blues Disciples cover religiously rigorous renditions of '50s and '60s-era Chicago electric classics, from Muddy Waters to Little Walter. Occasionally, they'll make their own back-alley run at the genre, here joined by one of Chicago's own, soul/funk maestro Mr. Lou Pride.

Rabbit Factory Soul Revue
4:45 p.m., Front Porch
John Ciba (of East of Edens Soul Express) brings some of the artists on his label out for a spin. The Revue features the Checkmates backing Herbert Wiley, the Legendary Roscoe Robinson, Ralph 'Soul' Jackson and Hermon Hitson; all of these artists are central to the label's mission to popularize/save classic soul.

Vernon Harrington Vernon Harrington
Vernon Harrington & The Atomic Blues Band
6:30 p.m., Front Porch
West Side purist Vernon Harrington is the son of Atomic-H Records owner, Rev. Houston H. Harrington, who operated a recording studio out of his church basement back in the late '50s. He's also a brother of Eddy Harrington, a.k.a. Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. Vernon is not as flashy as his brother, but has a rich past of over 30 years as one of the city's most-wanted sidemen. He's just now spreading his wings to develop his solo persona with the upcoming West Side Blues, featuring Eddy and harpist Billy Branch.

Tre' & The BlueKnights w/ Lady Kat
noon, Gibson Crossroads Stage
Son of L.V. Banks, Tre' honed his lead-man skills while under his father's wing in the mid-80s. His love for rock can be heard all over his records, and paired with the golden-boot spunk of Lady Kat, things should get aggressively funky.

Ernest Lane & The Kings of Rhythm
1:45 p.m., Gibson Crossroads Stage
Fifty-year ivory-tinkling vet Ernest Lane was Ike Turner's longtime friend and leader of the late musician’s backing band, The Kings of Rhythm. The band's seen here with some new ringers on guitar and sax, but it's still a true-to-the-core modern blues outfit with a jazzy backbone.

Ben Payton
12:30 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
Back in the '70s, this Mississippi-born guitarist worked with everyone from Eddie Shaw and the Wolfgang to Tail Dragger and Eddie C. Campbell. Payton just recently moved back to the Delta, where he reconnected with the toe-tapping styles of storied icons like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, so expect a throwback set.

Big Jack Johnson Big Jack Johnson
Big Jack Johnson & The Oilers
2 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint; 6:10 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
Housed on Honeyboy Edwards's Earwig imprint, Big Jack Johnson and his Oilers – Johnson was once an oil-truck driver – tackle heated social and political issues hidden behind major-key toe-tappers, complete with twinkling finishes and Johnson's post-war shrill. If not for Johnson's occasional solo wailers, this stuff could be mistaken for early '60s garage rock.

David Honeyboy Edwards w/ Devil in a Woodpile
3:30 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
Ninety-three-year-old David "Honeyboy" Edwards is one of the last living links to Delta pioneer Robert Johnson, the man who wrote "Sweet Home Chicago." Aside from Pinetop Perkins, Edwards is arguably the last true blue Delta musician alive. He's certainly past his freight train, moon-howlin' prime, but makes up for it with impromptu chord changes and decades of innate angst that won't ever quit his steel-lap-and-rasp pipes. He's teamed here with former Hideout residents (and now regular playing partners) Devil in a Woodpile, best known for their good-time blend of ragtime and swing.

Grady Champion
5 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
One of 28 Jackson, Mississippi-raised children, this new-generation harp, guitarist and vocalist has been mentioned in the same sentence as Sonny Boy Williamson for his politically tinted pen and his preacher energy on the live circuit. Yes, he's pushing 40 years old, but a two-record catalogue is prolific for a 'young' act in this genre.

Gary Gand's Pro Blues Jam
6:30 p.m., Mississippi Juke Joint
Otherwise known for his award-winning gear and installations at his namesake shop, Gary Gand moves his jam session from its regular Wednesday spot at Reggie's Music Joint to the grounds of Grant Park. Budding bluesmen and women will get their chance to shine, and modern-electric crew Blue Truth will fill in the gaps.

Johnny Drummer & the Starlighters
5 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
It's no fluke that Johnny's been around for more than 30 years. His smooth approach to writing contemporary soul, blues and R&B tunes, along with his knack for catchy lyrical hooks, has brought "old-school" blues storytelling back to prominence.

Jeremy Spencer
7:20 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
A British Blues Explosion icon, Spencer will forever be known for his role in the original formation of Fleetwood Mac, especially since his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in '98 via said band. But the guitarist's roots are deeply entwined in Elmore James and Slim Rhodes records. He's worked to master the slide-guitar technique; his latest, Precious Little, pays homage to the style with both originals and covers.

Sharon JonesSharon Jones
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
8:30 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
The act taking over this spot had some mighty big shoes to fill, as last year's show-closing performance featured the man who brought the blues to the Tonight Show, Mr. B.B. King. But Brooklyn's Sharon Jones and her backing crew, The Dap Kings, make for clutch choice, as their funk and soul revivalism has found fans in virtually every lair of musicdom, from Pitchfork snarksters to Chase Manhattan execs. It's not often that a band rocks Lollapalooza one year and Blues Fest the next, but that's exactly what Jones and company will do. Bring your dancin' shoes, and don't be surprised if you end up on stage before the party is through.

 

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