Despite the absence of marquee names like Keith Richards and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings - both of whom have graced its stages in years past - and budget cuts that have slimmed the event down from four days to three, the Chicago Blues Festival (June 11-13 in Grant Park) is still the largest of its kind in the world. And it's still absolutely free.
It's worth noting that the city did splurge on an iPhone app this year, which features a fun "encore flame" to hoist in the air when all the returning-to-their-roots Chicago bluesmen finish up their sets. The roster again runs deep with talent this year, with a tribute to the legendary Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett the thread that ties it all together (he would've turned 100 this weekend). So charge up your phone and head down to these highlighted performances, especially the homegrown ones.
Jimmy Dawkins w/ Taildragger 3 p.m. Friday; Front Porch
One of the last holdovers from the West Side funk explosion, Mississippi transplant Jimmy Dawkins inspired a young Bob Koester (the founder of Delmark Records) to release his 1969 debut, Fast Fingers
, a tie-back to the nickname he earned scrapping it for a good decade after he rode the rails to Chicago. Dawkins' W.C. Handy Award-winning guitar skills, when paired with the grimy, dive-bar scratch of fellow transplant vocalist James Yancy "Taildragger" Jones, should make for an interesting balance of ache and slash.
Howlin' Wolf alumni feat. Eddie Shaw & The Wolf Gang w/ special guests 5 p.m. Friday; Petrillo Music Shell
No one taps the energy of the late, great Howlin' Wolf like his longtime bandleader, Eddie Shaw. The pocket skills he mastered with The Wolf Gang allowed for Wolf’s seedy, wild soul to set underground blues aflame. An arsenal of special guests, from all-star session drummer Sam Lay to harpist Corky Siegal will be in tow to channel the icon proper.
Big George Brock & The House Rockers w/ George Brock Jr. 6:30 p.m. Friday; Front Porch
This 77-year old gem's style is an entirely rare breed, and not just because of his salmon three-piece suits and leopard-skin capes. Brock grew up in the cotton fields of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and was hardened in local boxing rings, while building friendships with everyone from Muddy Waters to Howlin' Wolf. He eventually settled in St. Louis, with string skills learned from Waters and an affinity for achy harp solos. Although Brock has mostly flown under the radar over the years, his marriage of front-porch swagger and knee-weak soul lofts have seen a comeback of late. Look for minimalist, searing tales like "Poor Boy" or harrowing harp flutters like "Rockin' Chair."
David Honeyboy Edwards 2 p.m. Saturday; Mississippi Juke Joint
An acoustic legend, this 93-year-old guitarist 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 Delta blues musician alive. Armed with the catchphrase, "the world don't owe me nothing," and hands that are still nimble as ever, he's the authoritative grandfather voice of the journey from Delta freight train to Chicago blues boom.
Rev. K.M. Williams & The Amazing Trainreck 3 p.m. Saturday; Zone Perfect All-Nutrition Bars Route 66 Roadhouse
An actual ordained minister, Rev. K.M. Williams one-ups Johnny Cash with closer-to-God tales, albeit using a boogie, steel-lap approach. A lot of it is reserved, Williams not one to let loose with his vocals - but when he does, watch out for harrowing "Yea Lordy" heel stomps, gospel wails and ominous tales from his breakout album, Here Comes The Preacher Man
Chicago Blues – A Living History feat. Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, John Primer, Lurrie Bell and special guest Carlos Johnson 7:35 p.m. Saturday; Petrillo Music Shell
In tandem with a double-disc album of the same name, Chicago blues supergroup A Living History combines the powers of 10 all-stars, young and old, from harpist Mathew Skoller to the muscular punch of guitarist John Primer, from Kenny "beady-eyes" Smith on drums to guest guitarist Carlos Johnson. It's a veritable blues family, joined to honor and document the evolution of the genre. Think The Traveling Wilburys, but with a purpose, which likely includes paying continuous homage to Howlin' Wolf.
Quintus McCormick noon Sunday; Gibson Guitar Crossroads
Guitarist McCormick has a Mississippi-Delta heart and a British sense of humor, and has been known to rock Robert Plant-wailing covers of “Stairway to Heaven” when not indulging his love for classy R&B. A regular at Kingston Mines
, he's known his his ability to control a crowd (while also suppressing the shyness that kept him as a sideman for years, until Buddy Guy and friends put the pressure on him to start his own band).
Guitar Shorty 4:45 p.m. Sunday; Front Porch
The grittiest Chicago bluesman that isn't from Chicago, Texas-based Guitar Shorty mastered the hard-nosed modern electric sound that has stocked Buddy Guy's Legends
for the past two decades - before the club, and arguably before Buddy. He just happened to be down in Florida or New Orleans, and didn't cut records until the early '80s on Black Top. The accolades have been streaming in ever since (from W.C. Handy Awards to Billboard chart-topping hits) for his glistening solos, monster guitar fingers and, when he was a bit younger – he's over 70 now – wily stage antics from back flips to headstands. Judging by the aggression on this year's Bare Knuckle
(on Alligator Records), there's still plenty of fire there.
East of the Edens Soul Express 5:30 p.m. Friday, 6:15 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday; Zone Perfect All-Nutrition Bars Route 66 Roadhouse
Best known for their Saturday-night residencies at the Hideout
, these DJs/Rabbit Factory Records owners have an intense retro love for Southern soul and blues circa '60s and '70s Chicago, but make sure to mix it up with contemporaries like Common in the interest of putting bodies on the dance floor (or in this case, makeshift roadhouse). A broad range of influences, from Issac Hayes to The Band to Muddy Waters, will melt inhibitions into one hot, sweaty golden mess.
T.K. Soul 8:30 p.m. Sunday; Petrillo Music Shell
The self-titled "Bad Boy of Southern Soul" closes the curtains on the 27th Annual Chicago Blues Festival. He's a bit placid on recordings, with Casio-grade keys punching along his zydeco-tinged Louisiana sass - funny because that's how he got his start, playing keys for other bands. Soul is a fine R&B songsmith, though, and has recently made his debut on the mic, showcasing a sultry, Stevie Wonder croon he should have busted out in the first place, with quintessential swoon lyrics like "I've got to go to rehab, baby, just to get over you."
Check out the full schedule.