Opening night acts featured Wayne Baker Brooks, the Blind Boys of Alabama with the legendary Bobby Rush, and a centennial tribute to Albert King — showcasing a legion of old and new blues artists including Donald Kinsey, Larry McCray, Rico McFarland, Carl Weathersby, and many others!
Set against the beautiful backdrop of the Windy City’s impressive skyline, the Chicago Blues Festival kicked off on the night of Thursday, June 8th and ran through Sunday, June 11th.
Billed as the largest free music festival in the world, the Chicago Blues Festival has been drawing fans from across the globe since its inception in 1984. It was held in Grant Park until 2017 when it moved over to Millennium Park, much to the chagrin of many festival goers.
The 2023 action was centered around the Pritzker Pavilion for the festival’s “opening night” acts that featured Wayne Baker Brooks, the Blind Boys of Alabama with Bobby Rush, and a centennial tribute to Albert King — showcasing a legion of old and new blues artists including Donald Kinsey, Larry McCray, Rico McFarland, Carl Weathersby, and many others.
There was also a sizeable local media presence covering the event and signifying the importance of the genre in the “Home of the Blues.” Much was made of the fact that the festival was “back” after the 2020 Covid cancellation, a one-night September show in 2021 and a smaller scale footprint in 2023.
But, despite the venue change and various false starts, one can finally take heart and find hope in the history and tradition of blues and Chicago’s annual festival is a prime example of this.
So, when WDCB DJ and longtime local blues ambassador Tom Marker stepped out on the stage promptly at 5:15, to emcee the event, the crowd knew they were going to be treated to a Thursday night trifecta of terrific blues.
Wayne Baker Brooks served as the night’s leadoff act, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. As the son of the late musical luminary, Lonnie Brooks, he has the blues in his DNA.
When interviewed on television, Brooks said he had reservations about opening the festival on Thursday night because he’s a “Friday/Saturday kind of guy,” but the thought of playing “Grand Marshall” in front of all his friends and family won out.
The personable Brooks certainly kicked things off on a high note with an inspired set that included several shout-outs to how happy he was to be playing in his hometown.
Brooks also touched on Lonnie Brooks’ legacy by taking the crowd on a “musical journey” that included the story of how his dad came to Chicago from Louisiana. Brooks then launched into a fine rendition of “The Crawl,” a song that Lonnie penned under the Guitar Junior moniker.
Brooks expressed his appreciation for sharing the stage “with the guys who got my back and know what we’re doing up here.” Brooks’ band consists of Scott Tipping on guitar, Kenny Kinsey on bass and drummer Mark Clay.
Following this energetic opening act, Marker came back to introduce Bobby Rush and the Blind Boys of Alabama. He noted that, “we have gospel blues legends who are bringing religion into the blues, and we have a soul blues legend who is bringing funk into the blues.”
“The soul blues legend” was none other than Mr. Bobby Rush who proudly announced that he will turn 90 on November 10th and then reeled off a long list of his many musical accomplishments including “singing the blues now for 72 years.” Rush then launched into an acoustic guitar solo before breaking out his harmonica.
Rush added that people might be wondering “why you on a gospel show when you’re singing the devil music,” but it turns out that his pairing with the Blind Boys wasn’t totally off base since Rush is active in his church and does prison ministry outreach. He then urged the audience to “stand on your feet and give the Alabama Blind Boys a hand.”
After Rush’s heartfelt introduction, the Blind Boys of Alabama were led out on the stage. As promised, their set featured gospel standards highlighted by their incredible harmonies. While their entire show was a musical treat, some standouts were “People Get Ready” and a lovely rework of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama closed out their set by bringing Rush back on to play harp on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” “Down in the Hole,” and “Amazing Grace.” They wrapped up their set with a rousing gospel number that had the crowd wishing for more.
Following a short break, the crowd got a whole lot more in the form of the grand finale—a centennial tribute to Albert King. One of the stand-out performers was Donald Kinsey, who not only played with King but also with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and many other legendary artists. Kinsey hails from Gary, Indiana where King once resided.
Rico McFarland is another fellow who had close ties with Albert King, as well as a long list of other big-time blues musicians. McFarland served as the bandleader for this all-star tribute and served up some sweet guitar licks on classics like “I Play the Blues for You.”
McFarland next brought up his “main man from Michigan” as Larry McCray came on to play “Traveling Man” before launching into King’s “Call My Job.” Both songs featured some fine guitar interplay between McFarland and McCray, as well as some impressive guitar solos by this Detroit-based musician.
Carl Weathersby was the final artist to grace the Pritzker Stage as he came on to play King’s “Crosscut Saw.” Weathersby was another musician who shared a history with Albert King as the latter was his dad’s auto mechanic. Weathersby later toured with King’s band as well as Billy Branch’s “Sons of the Blues.”
The evening wrapped up with Weathersby, McCray and Kinsey joining McFarland for an all-star jam for the ages. But the crowd knew that this was just the beginning of a blues-fueled bonanza with a slew of great artists slated to play Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Day two of the bountiful blues buffet! Friday, June 9th marked the first full day of the Chicago Blues Festival, and what a rich musical smorgasbord it was!
But with such a bountiful blues buffet, it was tough trying to take in everything that was being served up at the Pritzker Pavilion, the Rosa’s Tent, and the Visit Mississippi Stage. Suffice to say, there was talent everywhere, so here are some snippets of what the American Blues Scene crew did on “Day 2 of the Blues.”
First stop on that fine, sunny Friday was the Visit Mississippi Stage and checking out the state of great giveaway items including stickers, sunglasses, water bottles and other swag.
While the souvenirs are always fun, the main takeaway from the Mississippi Stage is its close connection to Chicago blues. The t-shirt tagline “Born in Mississippi. Electrified in Chicago” underscored the partnership between the State of Mississippi and the city of Chicago.
The first performer on the Mississippi Stage, Mzz Reese, served as a prime example of the Mississippi/Chicago connection. She was born in the Magnolia State and was exposed to gospel through her dad who was a member of the legendary Canton Spirituals. She later moved to Chicago where she has electrified audiences with her sassy performances and music that’s a mix of old-school blues and classic R&B.
Reese has credited the late Denise LaSalle as a major role model, and she delivered a few bawdy numbers in the spirit of the Mississippi songstress. Whether she was ripping out a racy tune or taking on a slow soulful jam, Mzz Reese and her Pieces put on a satisfying opening set and picked up some new fans in the process.
Following Mzz Reese was the always energetic and highly entertaining, Lightnin’ Malcom. Long a fixture on the Clarksdale, Mississippi music scene, this engaging artist seems destined to expand his fan base as he recently signed on with Tab Benoit’s Whiskey Bayou records and has a new release entitled Eye of the Storm.
Lightnin’ lit up the crowd immediately with his big sound and mastery of the Hill Country blues style that he learned at the hands of legends like RL Burnside and T Model Ford. While Lightnin’ Malcom often does his show as a “one man band,” he was joined by drummer Clark Winkel and singer Prayer Bailey for his Chicago Blues Festival appearance.
Bailey brings yet another dimension to Lightnin’ Malcom’s diverse set list as they performed everything from a reggae-style song called “Reality Check” to a call and response on “Fit to Eat.” Like so many others who play Chicago, Malcom expressed his admiration for his “blues heroes” who “exported the music all over the world.”
One of Chicago’s early blues heroes was the late Eddie Taylor Senior, who would have turned 100 years old this year. But Taylor’s large and musically inclined family is carrying on his legacy and that was evident in the Rosa’s Tent. The Eddie Taylor 100th birthday tribute featured a full slate of his talented offspring including vocalists Brenda, Demetria, Edna, and Larry along with drummer Tim Taylor.
Besides their prodigious musical talent, the Taylor sisters were in sync with their stage presence and style game. Demetria donned black leather pants and a sparkly top while Edna opted for a white sequin swing dress. At one point, Brenda Taylor removed her white high heels and announced that she was ready to “party without my shoes y’all.”
The entire family kicked it into high gear when all four singing Taylors took their act out to the audience on the floor and cajoled the crowd to join in on Demetria’s “Bad Girl,” her first release on Delmark Records.
They closed out the show with Larry belting out some tunes by his father’s famous friends like Jimmy Reed and Magic Sam.
Before that rousing tribute in the Rosa’s Tent, we were perched at the Pritzker Pavilion for more of those “only at Blues Fest” magical moments on the main stage.
From Delmark’s 70th Anniversary Tribute kicking off the afternoon to a truly grand finale by newly christened Blues Hall of Famer John Primer and his Real Deal Band, there were some primo performances taking place on the Pritzker Stage.
The Delmark All-Stars came on at 2:30 sharp with a lineup that read like a “who’s who” of the blues. These well-seasoned musicians were all in peak performance mode and ready to do their record label proud.
It had been proclaimed “Delmark Day” by the city of Chicago with Delmark’s President Julia Miller and Vice President/Artistic Director Elbio Barilari on hand to accept this well-deserved honor from emcee Scott “Hambone” Hammer.
The list of featured Delmark All-Stars included Dave Specter, Steve Bell, Larry Williams, Roosevelt Purifoy, Johnny Iguana, Big Ray Stewart, Nick Alexander, Johnny Burgin, Willie Buck, Dave Weld, Monica Myhre, Shirley Johnson, Sharon Lewis, and Bob Stroger.
And here’s a tip for those that couldn’t witness all these fine musicians live on the big stage, you can still check out all the action on the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) YouTube channel. Tune in and marvel at the moves of bluesmen like Bob Stroger who is 92-years young.
Hot on the heels of this delightful Delmark All-Star set, came two great performances by old and new standard-bearers of the blues. First was up-and-comer Jontavious Willis, who hails from Georgia and plays his own brand of country-flavored blues. Willis further burnished his musical credentials when he was mentored by both Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’.
The ever-popular Jimmy Burns followed Willis on the main stage. Although Willis is still a young man and Burns turned 80 this year, they share a similar love of old-school country blues. Both men play a mean harp, too!
Burns came up to Chicago from Mississippi in 1955 and sang in a doo-wop group. He later took a break from music to raise his family and run a barbecue stand. Barbecue played a role in his musical reemergence in the nineties when Bob Koester, the then-owner of Delmark Records, caught Burns playing with Johnny Burgin at Smoke Daddy in Chicago. He signed Burns to record his Leaving Here Walking album and Burns was back in the music business.
The octogenarian turned in an energetic set that included everything from a nod to his doo-wop roots with a rendition of “Stand by Me” to a cover of Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice.” Of course, he also played plenty of traditional blues for the appreciative audience.
This non-stop Friday blues bonanza had the audience pumped up and primed for Blues Hall-of Famer John Primer and his Real Deal band. It goes without saying that Primer has been on a roll lately and his turn on the Pritzker stage was no exception.
Resplendent in a shiny blue suit, Primer returned to the stage after receiving his official Hall of Fame award and proclamation from the Blues Foundation. But Primer wasn’t resting on his laurels as he and the band launched into some red-hot blues following the award ceremony.
His band had a few Delmark All-Stars on board including Johnny Iguana on keyboards and harmonica ace, Steve Bell. Primer also shared the stage with fellow Muddy Waters’ band member, Rick Kreher. Bass player David Forte and drummer Lenny Media rounded out the “Real Deal” blues crew.
Primer and the Real Deal’s set showcased everything from an extended jam of Muddy’s “I’m a Man” and a musical tribute to his adopted hometown of Chicago to accompanying daughter Aliya on “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Te Ni Nee Ni Nu.”
He also commented that his goal was to bring the music to the many young people in the audience and keep the “real blues alive.” Judging from all the satisfied smiles on that stellar Chicago night, it was “mission accomplished” for Mr. Primer and company.
The diversity of talent on display was truly amazing with everything from an incredible “Women in Blues” showcase to a masterful Mud Morganfield!
The blues were alive and well on a stellar Saturday that saw over 70,000 fans turn up at Millennium Park for the third day of the Chicago Blues Festival.
The diversity of talent on display was truly amazing with everything from an incredible “Women in Blues” showcase to a masterful Mud Morganfield capping off another fine day for the large and enthusiastic audience perched in and around the Pritzker Pavilion.
While the first two days of the festival showcased the legacy of Albert King on Thursday and Friday focused on the 70th Anniversary of Delmark Records, Saturday was all about the ladies who sing the blues and the many familial connections, too.
The “Women in Blues Tribute” honored the legendary Deitra Farr, Katherine Davis and Sugar Pie DeSanto and was emceed by the multi-talented Lynne Jordan. It also featured a fine roster of female blues musicians like guitar whiz Joanna Conner, Radka Kasparcova, bassist Sherry Weathersby and vocalist/drummer Sheryl Youngblood.
But here’s good news for those who have experienced extreme “FOMO” over missing this killer show. These dynamic blues divas will be getting much of the band back together for a gig at Chicago’s City Winery on September 6th and you can still catch their act on the DCASE.
The focus on talented blues musicians of the female persuasion prevailed throughout the day. Over on the Mississippi Stage, there was James “Super Chikan” Johnson tearing into an inspired set that was further enhanced by his “Fighting Cocks” all-female band.
Based in the blues hotbed of Clarksdale, Mississippi, Johnson acquired the nickname due to his propensity for conversing with chickens as a child. He also drove a truck for many years running and wrote songs to pass the time while piloting his rig down the highway. He made the move to full-time musician in the nineties, but his hard-driving work ethic and talent for turning a phrase were on full display throughout his time on stage.
Meanwhile, over on the Pritzker Stage, you had Demetria Taylor “turning up” with “Big brother” Mike Wheeler and his always-tight backing band. Taylor came out blazing and put on an impassioned performance that won scores of accolades.
Here’s what WDCB disc jockey and longtime Chicago blues guru, Tom Marker had to say about Taylor’s performance via his Facebook page. “When people ask me which was my favorite act at last week’s Chicago Blues Festival the first thing that comes to my mind was the set.
There was an awesome display of talent at Blues Fest including many of my favorite performers and some artists I hadn’t seen before and I didn’t get to all stages to see everybody, but Demetria’s show was stunning for its excitement, drama and especially, hard work, Demetria gave everything!”
Marker’s comment about “not getting to all stages” certainly rings true during this 4-day blues marathon. But the hits of seeing artists like Taylor in peak form, manage to outweigh the misses that inevitably happen. One set that was a “can’t miss” in the American Blues Scene staff’s eyes was the 5pm Rosa’s Jam session in the tent of the same name.
This set was designed to recreate the feel of the iconic Rosa’s lounge and featured a full complement of blues legends. On vocals, you had longtime Rosa’s favorite the 83-year-old vocalist Mary Lane and the always-entertaining Willie Buck. There was Blues Hall of Famer Billy Branch blowing harp with big guitar sounds by way of Lil Ed Williams.
The band in Rosa’s Tent are bona fide Chicago blues musicians, but the festival also brings talent from all over the country. Such was the case with Texas-based Sugar Ray Rayford who played the Pritzker Stage on Saturday. He expressed his gratitude for both the weather and the booking when he came out and said he “was happy to be here in the sun after 20 years of waiting to play the Chicago Blues Festival.”
After these heartfelt words, the big man got down to business and told the audience that “this isn’t a red wine and cheese party. It’s a fried chicken and malt liquor party” as he proceeded to serve up some high-octane, soul fueled blues after urging the audience to “shake what your momma gave you.”
The evening wrapped up in fine fashion when the always-resplendent Mud Morganfield took the stage. The nattily dressed son of Muddy Waters did not disappoint as he ripped into several songs from his dad’s catalog. As always, the audience was left marveling over the uncanny resemblance to Muddy’s musical mannerisms and delivery.
In addition to performing blues classics made famous by his father, Morganfield also took on some of his own songs. He brought out his daughters to back him on the gospel flavored “Praise Him” from his recent Portrait release on Delmark. After he had taken the audience to church, Morganfield returned to his blues roots and closed with “I’m a Man” and “Got My Mojo Working.”