It was a misty afternoon in Chicago on June 10. The cloud cover slid down to about the 20th story of the Aon Building near Grant Park. The temps were in the upper 50's, some festival attendees were wearing hoodies and windbreakers. It was disorienting - we experienced a 40-degree temperature drop in 28 hours earlier in the week and some people were still in their shorts and tank tops, shivering.
I hate to say it but I will - this year's Blues Fest is a shadow of its former self. If you pick a year at random, say 1989, who was at the Fest? Buddy Guy, Dr. John, Junior Wells, Allen Toussaint, Kinsey Report, A.C. Reed, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas and many more. Other stellar names from past Fests - Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, and B.B. King. In 2009, the Fest was cut from 4 to 3 days to save money. This year, there seems top be two fewer stages operating during the day. I think that the lame duck Daley Administration, the Chicago budget crisis and the retirement of Barry Dolins has led to a less ambitious festival. There was some great music happening yesterday at the fest, but there was less of it. Dolins ran the Blues Fest for 27 years and it will take a while for The Fest to re-set. And I guess that it is a good thing that more of the performers are local blues artists - This is the CHICAGO Blues Festival, after all. But the crowd was smaller and even older than usual. I fear at times that blues music is heading toward irrelevency, like Dixieland jazz, beloved by a small group of eccentric elderly people. This thought makes me feel gloomy.
So I heard my buddies Mark Wydra (guitar) and Harland Terson (bass) playing behind Sam Lay. Sam is a terrific guy and one of the best blues drummers in the history of the music. He played with Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Wille Dixon Howlin' Wolf and was the man who set the beat for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And of course, Sam Lay played on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album back in the day. He didn't play the drums yesterday - he sat up front, sang and played the guitar. He is not a highly skilled guitarist. The band was very loosey-goosey and under-rehearsed. These are outstanding players, though, and the blues is a genre that can be great even if the band isn't tight. I chatted with Mr. Wydra after the set - he noted the scaled-back Fest vibe and seemed a bit glum. But we agreed on one thing - people still need to listen to the blues, but they just don't realize it. If the current economic environment and global mood had a soundtrack, it would consist of blues music, the music of lament.
I also caught the Sanctified Grumblers, a local trio of creative countirfied acoustic blues guys. Eric Noden is a heckuva player - guitar, banjo and vocals. Rick Sherry is always a hoot, playing harmonica, clarinet and washboard. Rick has one of the most interesting voices and vocal styles I have ever heard - he has a ferocious baritone that cuts through the clutter like an auctioneer.
Super Chikan was also booked for the fest this year. This guy is ubiquitous on the blues festival scene during the summer months; he is a road dog with tens of thousands of miles on his sneakers. He is skilled, and he is a crowd-pleaser with his home-made electric guitars and his wild-and-crazy demeanor.
I also caught a bit of the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, a group of young guys from Champaign IL. They were definitely worth hearing, and brought energy and passion to the little Windy City blues Society stage. Great to see some 20-somethings loving the music.
I left Grant Park when the mist turned to rain and headed west toward Ogilvie Transportation Center to catch the 7:35 train back home. There was a large young man standing in a doorway on an empty block of Jackson Street, trying to avoid the mist. He was begging, and not in a quiet voice. I glanced at him, and passed by. But then I turned back - there was something in his eyes, too much pain. I dug in my pocket for some small bills, shoved them in his cup while he thanked me. I asked him his name, he said "Brian, sir, and what is your name if I may ask?" I told him, and he turned his eyes skyward and said "Thank you, Father, for Chris. Thank you, Father, for Chris..." repeating the phrase over and over, mantra-like. Tears rolled down his cheeks. I told him to take it easy, good luck, and a couple of other banalities. I turned and fled. And I thought, "What the hell is going on?"