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Monday, July 21, 2008

Chicago Blues Festival June 8th Review

Current mood: sleepy

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Well, it's late July now, but it's 1 AM and I'm bored. Matt seems to have taken a liking to reviewing shows on here, and it sounds like a good idea to me. Anyway, June 8th started at 4AM when the drive from Norwood, Ohio to Chicago began. I almost felt like a dedicated muslim on a trip to Mecca with this blues pilgrimage. Chicago is the undisputed birth place of the electric blues that the pretty white kids stole in the 50s, watered down and made popular. We only went for the final day, which is kind of a bummer looking back on it. We missed tons of amazing acts from the first 3 days: Johnny Winter and James Cotton (though I did manage to catch Edgar Winter with Ringo Starr a couple weeks ago), Koko Taylor, Pinetop Perkins (the man's 95 and is probably the last link to the Mississippi Delta pre-war blues), Otis Taylor's Recapturing the Banjo set, Lonnie Brooks and his son Ronnie Baker Brooks, etc. However, I have no reason to complain because what my girlfriend and I did see was an amazing show.

We got to Chicago early (and didn't realize there was a time zone change also), ate some Subway and walked around for a bit. Finding a parking spot was certainly a difficult task, and we learned that public restrooms weren't very public in Chicago. The places that had them were required to be unlocked by a worker.

The show started around 11 with some gospel music. I'm no Christian by any stretch, but much of the blues was crafted in churches or on plantations and there is a strong link to that in modern gospel music which I've always liked. The Victory Travelers started the day. We watched them for a little while and after not being floored by the performance opted to check out what else was going on. We headed over to the Louisiana Bayou stage where Donald and Geraldine Gay were scheduled to play. They started a couple minutes later and immediately Donald's booming blues pipes had gotten the small-ish crowd into the show. He explained that Geraldine was in the hospital and having a rough time, but was at the show in spirit. Donald sat down on a drum throne with a cane and was a master at getting the crowd to participate. He mentioned after the 3rd song or so that they were a gospel group, but he also didn't try to push religion on anyone- when he talked about Geraldine he said that she was in their prayers, and hoped that she was in our prayers or thoughts. He was a cool guy, and they ripped through the classic "You Gotta Move" like nobody ever had. A couple songs after that, it began raining- and then pouring. We ended up back in a parking garage for a while but went back when things had, as we thought, calmed down.

When it began to pour again, we took refuge in the Best Buy tent full of blues CDs for sale. They then announced that the park was closing due to the weather, and we were kicked out of the booth shortly after in a rude and incredibly redundant manner by a worker. Back to the parking garage...

Finally the skies parted and the show went on. We walked around the place for a while as the show began to kick off again, albeit behind schedule. We ended up at the Gibson Guitar Crossroads, where Big James Montgomery and the Playboys were setting up. A big crowd had gathered and we stood with high hopes. The band didn't disappoint, starting off with Big James telling the crowd they'd be playing "so funky you can smell it!". He had an excellent band and they took a long solo section for each member in which James would introduce the person a million times and say the same thing over and over again ("play the blues, Mike, PLAY THE BLUES!") during their solos, which was a bit annoying. All in all though, they played exceptionally well and had an hour long set.

We then found a small stage where Otis Taylor was about to begin his regular set with his fantastic band. Taylor did some crazy experimenting live (acoustic guitar with lots of delay tweaking) and it was great. His lead  guitarist played the blues on a sunburst Les Paul in a flamenco fingerstyle. Truly original and refreshing. They played for an hour too, and we were in the very front. It was a definite highlight of the day for me.

We then ate some food and headed over to the Petrillo Music Shell, the huge main stage. We got some pretty nice seats and sat down in the burning heat as Karen Carroll had begun her set with Charlie Love and Lurrie Bell. They were pretty solid, but it was very hot and the sun partially blocked out the stage, making it tough to be really "into it".

Magic Slim and the Teardrops came on next, and were another big highlight of the day. They started off in true Chicago fashion with the rhythm guitarist starting the show as bandleader before Magic Slim took the stage. They blasted through some mandatory John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and a couple of other standards before Magic Slim took the stage. The rhythm guitarist's leads and vocals were exceptional and certainly got the crowd focused on the show. When Magic Slim took the stage, the seats got completely filled and the crowd was into it. There was even a man who must have been 90 dancing in the aisles. Within 10 minutes he was in front of the stage and was getting applause from the fans for his moves. This show must have been like home for him. I imagine he's a Chicago native who witnessed the 50s blues boom in his hometown and was enjoying another big taste of it. Magic Slim played for an hour and left with the crowd rowdy and certainly feelin' the blues.

A boogie woogie piano legend took the stage next for a 35 minute set. Little Willie Littlefield is in his 70s and has lived in Europe for quite some time now. Seeing him in America is pretty rare, and it was a real treat. He as the first to record the blues standard "Kansas City" in the 40s and he wowed the audience with his great playing on that song and others (including the must have song of the festival- "Sweet Home Chicago"). The crowd were anxious for the headliner though, and soon his band took the stage...

I saw BB King in November with my girlfriend a couple days after a car accident. I felt sore when I got to that show, but I swear the blues healed me that night. I left feeling great. BB was incredible, and Music Hall in Cincinnati is an incredible venue. Great seats (front row of the balcony, right by the monitors) helped too- but it was mostly BB's stories and character, not to mention his still-incredible voice and of course Lucille, who sounded as good as ever. We decided after that we'd see him again whenever we had the chance. We looked on his website at her house one day and saw that he was playing a show in Chicago, which was tempting... then we scrolled down and saw that he was playing the Chicago Blues Festival a few days later and that settled it. We were road tripping it.

So here we were again! BB's band took the stage and played for what seemed like a while before BB came out (they only had an hour and 15 minutes, so I was kind of hoping they'd get on with it), and when he did the place exploded. He was introduced by Buddy Guy, the current president of Chicago blues- with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters being gone. BB's family sat on the side of the stage, as well as Koko Taylor and Buddy. I had hoped Koko and Buddy would take the stage with BB for a grand finale, but it didn't happen. BB's character was in full effect again, and he further solidied my thinking that he is the best in the world at crowd interaction.

I was impressed by BB's set list, which was quite different from what I saw last November. We didn't get a favorite of mine, "How Blue Can You Get?" which was played in November, but we did get great rundowns of "Sweet Little Angel", "Don't Answer The Door", "3:00 Blues" and a couple more covers of Chicago blues tracks for the occasion. Of course some standards from the last show were there, like the show closers "The Thrill Is Gone" and "Guess Who" (in which BB salutes his fans with love that actually seems believable, unlike when anyone else tries to do so. BB truly has a great love for his fans and playing for them), as well as a funky "When Love Comes To Town" that's a definite crowd pleaser.

I still have trouble deciding which BB King show was better, the Music Hall '07 show or the Chicago Blues Fest show. Right now I'd say the Music Hall show for the fact that it lasted longer- but the whole day of the Blues Festival beats that show out for all the other acts we saw also. BB is 82 and still sounds and plays great, and if anything he has only improved in how he talks to the crowd. It's worth the admission price just to hear his stories about his youth, his age, Buddy Guy being "young" and how things have changed.

If you'll allow me to ramble on a little longer about one of my heroes, I'd like to retell one of his stories from the November show. One which I'll never forget. BB talked about growing up in the poverty-stricken (and talent-filled) Mississippi Delta when things were segregated. He said that he used to hang out with his friends and drink a little bit, claiming that with a few drinks in him he'd start feeling a bit courageous, a bit strong. He said that there were two water fountains that looked exactly the same, except that one was labeled "White" and one was labeled "Black". He said that he always wondered what was special about the "white water", so that day he got the guts to go up and try it. So he went up and took some big gulps of the "white water" and walked on home feeling pretty cool for what he had done. Later on, he told us he thought about the water. He said "man, I don't know what the fuss is about that white water- tastes the same as the black water to me!".

That about sums up my thoughts on equality in a way that I never could with my own words. Thanks, BB. I'll be seeing you again I'm sure.

After the festival, we proceeded to get lost in downtown Chicago (which was definitely alive, with musicians everywhere... pretty cool) and eventually we found our hotel, which was just outside of Chicago (about 45 minutes from the show Downtown to give you an idea of the size of Chicago). We fell asleep almost immediately... I had been up since a little after 2 AM. I only got about an hour of sleep the night before thanks to anticipation. We planned to see Chicago the next day, but just drove home in the morning knowing we'd get severely lost in the ever-confusing downtown Chicago. The drive home was pretty fun, and filled with finding good radio stations as we entered and passed big towns and listening to The Beatles' Abbey Road a few times through.

That about sums up the day I think. I'm sure you're dead from boredom at this point, so I'll stop here and call an ambulance for you. I'm sure that was written incredibly poorly... it's 2:30 AM and I don't feel like proofreading.

-Mike
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