The second weekend in June is Blues Fest weekend in Chicago. The Chicago Blues Festival is allegedly the largest free blues music festival in the world. I was there - I gorged on the music for days; just finished up last night.
The first weekend in June was the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, which I missed. The thunderstorms discouraged me from attending - I hate standing out in an open field in the pouring rain. Well, the thunderstorms didn't last, of course, but once I delayed my departure for the Gospel Fest, family tasks filled up all available space in the weekend. But I did see Nick Moss and the Fliptops on Saturday night (June 4) at my local blues bar. Mr. Moss and his crew are solid, energetic players - traditionalists with an edge. Nick cuts an imposing figure on stage - he is large and in charge, with his tatts and his blistering guitar. He also has a very hot young player in his band - Gerry Hundt, a fine guitarist and excellent harmonica player (and yes, he plays bass, too). And to add to the Fliptops' cache, they have the amazing Piano Willie O'Shawny. Piano Willie is a deeply retro guy - he's got the conked hair, the tight white t-shirt, the wiry frame. I ran into him at Blues Fest and we snapped a picture, which I have posted for your review. Willie is no spring chicken, but he can pound the keys. So Nick Moss and the Fliptops served as my warm-up for the blues fest.
On Thursday afternoon (June 9), I stood out in the mid-day sun to watch Tommy McCracken. Every fan of big blues-belting male vocalists should run to Chicago and catch this man's act! He works very hard and delivers a song like very few others. And he has some cool dance moves, too! He's 6 ft. 2 in. and meaty; he is a multi-racial stewpot of a man. He worked hard out in the ninety degree/ninety percent humidity Chicago summer weather. I felt honored to be in his presence. The man is 66 years old and still kicking it.
On Friday, the Fest hit its high points for me. First, the amazing Robert Lockwood, Jr. held forth for ninety minutes, playing and singing a range of jazz-tinged blues with his large band. He had the "hot set," meaning he was in the mid-day sun. Robert is a powerful performer. He is only 90 years old, so we should get to enjoy him for a few more decades ;-). This man is in fantastic mental and physical shape for a nonagenerian. He still has a lot to say; his music is deep. His version of "Big Leg Woman" is now my all-time favorite. I talked to him after the set, and he was cracking jokes and waving his arms around like an enthusiastic youngster. Robert is one of the last of the original bluesmen still standing - along with Honeyboy Edwards. Lockwood took guitar lessons from Robert Johnson, fercryinoutloud! He played with Little Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka Rice Miller), Sunnyland Slim and a host of other legends - he was probably the top session man in Chicago during the glory years of the blues. He took off for Cleveland in the 1960's and still lives there.
Over on the Front Porch Stage during and after Robert Lockwood's set, a marvelous blues family gathered to celebrate the life and music of their deceased partriarch, Eddie Taylor. The stage was crowded with Taylors - Eddie Jr., Larry, Brenda, Edna and Demetria. Their dad was one of the builders of the Chicago blues. He invented Jimmy Reed's sound with his subtle shuffle and tasty solos. In addition to the Taylor kids, a number of Eddie Taylor disciples were on stage - Little Arthur Duncan uncorked several tunes and re-created the '50's blues world with his keening vocals and earthy harp. Steve Guyger, a massively gifted blues harmonica player from Philly, added energy and zest to the tunes.
On Saturday, I was tired. I also had been a bad dad and husband, so I needed to re-connect with my wife and kids (who are incredibly kind to tolerate my blues addiction). But The Smoke Daddy on Diversey had it going on during Saturday afternoon and evening - pig roast, $1 Buds, and hours and hours of harmonica blues. Oh, yas man! I had to be there. Scott Dirks was the MC - he is a great harmonica player and a scholar of the blues harmonica (he literally wrote the book on Little Walter). Scott brought up a parade of players - Big Al Blake from California, Steve Guyger (see comments in preceeding paragraph), and local heroes Shoji Naito and Big D. The evening entertainment was the Billy Flynn Band. Billy is a nice feller from Green Bay, Wisconsin who has blues blood and blues guts in his lanky middle-aged white body. He has true reverence for the Chicago blues traditions. He brought Bob Stroger with him, so we had the honor of hearing this giant of the blues bass guitar for a few tunes. And Steve Guyger also took the stage with Billy and really stretched out, playing the truest blues harp I have heard in ages - maybe ever. Steve's vocals were authentic and impassioned. To add to the fun, Cathi Norton sang and Joe Filisko played some harp. I left the Smoke Daddy at 1 a.m., completely sated.
Sunday was a day for rest. I went to church, we had a barbeque.
Last night, I went to Joe Filisko's advanced blues harmonica class. This is a group of blues harp zealots, a cult led by Joliet Joe. We are studying the intricacies of "Sixth Position." No, this is not a martial arts move or a page from the Kama Sutra - it is a very different way of approaching the harmonica in a blues setting. So we played, we studied, and we went to the bar for beers after class.
I must now re-engage as a good investment banker and family man, let all of this music settle into my system.