Clip: Chicago blues festival feature (brief Bettye LaVette content)
June 4, 2006
BY JEFF JOHNSON STAFF REPORTER
With its principal sponsor gone and a talent lineup that screams "belt
tightening," the Chicago Blues Festival opens Thursday in Grant Park
amid a surprising spirit of optimism among artists, organizers and
Sweet Home Chicago's blues cognoscenti.
The city announced a record attendance of 775,000 for last year's
festival, which dodged the spring deluges that accompany most blues
fests. But without a Thursday night blockbuster act to kick-start the
festival or a Saturday headliner that will compel the large afternoon
crowd to hang around, it may be tough to top that turnout this year.
The 23rd annual blues fest is a breed apart from other similar events
in San Francisco and Long Beach, Calif., as well as the New Orleans
Jazz & Heritage Festival, in that those fests charge admission of $30
and up per day. Chicago's fest is free to the public -- and always
will be, says Barry Dolins, who coordinates the fest for the Mayor's
Office of Special Events.
The event remains self-supporting even though giant retailer Best Buy,
which for a decade ponied up nearly as much funding for the fest as
all the other corporate donors combined, has dropped its sponsorship
this year. But if Dolins has had to cut any corners because of the
pullout, he's not saying so.
Before the 2005 fest, Dolins said his talent budget had been increased
from about $175,000 to $250,000 through "creative bookkeeping." Asked
for a figure this year, he says, "I'm still balancing the books. It's
a million-dollar event [including setup, security and cleanup
expenses]. There hasn't been a cutback, but in the past we did have
help from corporate sponsors in getting a Buddy Guy [in 2005] or a
Bonnie Raitt [in 2003]. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't want to book
Bonnie Raitt again. When we had her, it wasn't a blues show."
For good or ill, it all comes back to Dolins' definition of true
blues. He uses the fest to educate the public about the music at its
roots, creating daily themes ("Drivin' Wheel," "St. James Infirmary,"
etc.) that reflect some aspect of blues history. This year, the fest
celebrates the centennials of Little Brother Montgomery, Roosevelt
Sykes and Chicago street performer Blind Arvella Gray.
Dolins bristles at criticism of the fest, stating, "Everybody in the
world appreciates the story that's being told except for the Chicago
media. The New York Times called it 'the granddaddy of all festivals'
for the second year in a row."
While some genre-bending artists complain privately that they're being
excluded, most tip their hats to the city for honoring its musical
heritage and showing respect for its elder statesmen through repeat
Tinsley Ellis, who's back for his second stint on Chicago's Alligator
Records, expresses no bitterness despite never being booked in Grant
Park. The closest he came was for Alligator's 25th anniversary
late-night after-fest concert at Navy Pier in 1996.
"When it comes to blues, I'm kind of a purist myself," Ellis says.
"I'm a blues-rocker, and I look at a festival like this and say,
'That's great that they're celebrating indigenous blues people.' My
time will come. Most of the festivals I play are rock festivals
operating under the guise of being blues festivals. That's to attract
a crowd. If you give people in some places the real thing, they don't
come out in numbers. If you give them something more rockin', all of
the sudden it's a rock 'n' roll show.
"After all, it's not the Chicago Blues-Rock Festival. Places like
Rochester, N.Y., bring people like me in."
'Place to be' for blues players
Chicago brings in people like traditional acoustic bluesman Fruteland
Jackson, who has performed at five previous fests but is touring
Iceland this week. Jackson says a spot in the Chicago lineup is a
major goal of all blues artists.
"It's the place to be, the festival you want to play," Jackson says.
"There are real blues fans there. And Chicago has a blues month
[leading up to the fest] where every day there's something going on: a
photography exhibit, Blues in the Schools programs, something special
in the clubs. That's what makes the Chicago Blues Festival just so
magical. When you play the festival and finally get to play on the
mainstage -- I haven't yet -- it's something to live for."
In Sweet Home Chicago, you need deep blues roots to realize that
dream. Four of the most frequently booked artists -- David "Honeyboy"
Edwards, Homesick James, Robert Jr. Lockwood and Henry Townsend -- are
more than 90 years old. Those legends will be doing two sets together
next Saturday afternoon.
None of these artists, though, is likely to build on the blues fan
base by drawing younger, more rock-oriented audiences to the park.
"You need to bring some of the blues-rock stars to the fest, because
those are the ones who brought the masses to the blues," says Tony
Mangiullo, proprietor of Rosa's Lounge, a West Side blues club that
books the city's most traditional blues acts along with blues-rockers
such as Melvin Taylor. "I got interested in blues through Jimi Hendrix
and Eric Clapton and other rock stars.
"I think it would be great to try to bring U2, the Rolling Stones,
Eric Clapton ... you need these guys. This is one of the biggest
cities in the world; I see it as a tribute to the blues and kind of a
payback. It's the approach that counts [in recruiting such talent]. If
it's restricted to a money transaction, they'll say of course not. If
you say, 'This is Chicago blues, it's a dying art, and we need your
help,' people who know their history, when they hear those words
they'd be willing to do something about it."
Local bluesman-author-educator Fernando Jones has his own theory of
how to keep the music alive. He has set up blues combos in Chicago
public elementary schools in the past, and he's now teaching a blues
course at Columbia College. Thirteen of his students will perform as
the Chicago Blues Ensemble on Thursday at the fest, where Jones and-or
his Blues Kids of America have had an annual presence since 1990.
Jones has also served on a festival committee that met regularly in
the past but now informally submits booking recommendations by e-mail.
"I think the festival services every type of blues fan, whether you're
a fan of stand-up singers like Bobby 'Blue' Bland [next Sunday's
headliner] or guitar slingers or acoustic guitar players, or groups
like my ensemble, the first collegiate blues ensemble in the country.
And it's free.
"It's a Super Bowl, the type of place where somebody who's making $75
a night in the clubs can make $150 as a sideman."
Still a launching pad
The fest has helped to jump-start the careers of several veteran
artists, notably the late Luther Allison, the expatriate Chicago
bluesman who made his triumphant return from France at the 1995 fest,
and Bettye LaVette, the Detroit soul-blues diva who wowed the crowd on
a frigid night in 2002 with her high-energy act.
"My saving grace that night was that it was so cold and I was so
naked," LaVette recalls with a laugh. "That seems like 25 years ago.
So much has happened since then."
Shortly after that appearance, she signed with the high-profile
Rosebud Agency and used her CD "A Woman Like Me" as a major comeback
vehicle. LaVette, who has a popular new album on Anti with "I've Got
My Own Hell to Raise," returns as Thursday's opening-night headliner.
The husky-voiced singer finds herself playing to a different audience
these days than during her first go-round in the '60s.
"My black fan base is about my age," says LaVette, who just turned 60.
"That base has always been very strong in Chicago. Those people aren't
even hearing me now. Those aren't the folks who came out to hear me
the last time I was in town at FitzGerald's."
Regardless of its significance to the performers, the blues fest has
"incredible historical importance," says harmonica ace Corky Siegel,
who returns to the Petrillo Music Shell mainstage Saturday night with
the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, his reunited Chicago blues group of the
1960s and '70s. Siegel also has worked for 40 years to merge the blues
with classical music.
"Even though I'm a non-genre person, I still have a great deal of
respect and see the importance of certain festivals focusing on a
specific genre, as long as there are other festivals that don't focus
on a specific genre," Siegel says. "If you're playing great music,
whatever it is, that's going to be recognized. The music itself can
break down these false boundaries."
What's in a name?
Bruce Iglauer, whose Alligator label is represented at the fest only
by Siegel-Schwall and Saffire the Uppity Blues Women, praises the fest
for its authentic approach to the blues, but recommends booking "a few
more artists who have more name value to draw in new people. I'd like
to see artists who have crossover appeal in a number of new
As examples, he cites the 2002 booking of the popular blues-rock jam
band the North Mississippi Allstars and this Friday's set by Duwayne
Burnside, the son of Mississippi Hill Country legend R.L. Burnside.
"And maybe he's not strictly blues, but Ben Harper would bring in a
With an eye toward developing younger talent, the fest will feature
its first-ever Jam Station, where budding musicians can join three top
local bluesmen -- guitarist Dave Specter, bassist Aron Burton and
drummer Kenny Smith -- for a couple of hours each afternoon on the
Mississippi Juke Joint Stage.
"The idea is to seed it with bona fide blues legends and give people
an opportunity to do a tune with them if they have the ability," says
Dolins, who quotes an old saying from bluegrass festivals: "The best
pickers are in the parking lot."
He might add that some of the most devoted fans are at the airport.
Dolins says interest in this fest is high among European blues lovers.
Anders Sunden and his wife, who came from Umea, Sweden, last year in a
group of 15 members of a local R&B society, plan to return this year
"The atmosphere of the festival area was friendly and relaxed," Sunden
writes. "And it's free of charge, but to be honest we would probably
come even if there was a charge. And I find it hard to believe that
any other festival/city can offer as much good music as Chicago can.
It's not just the festival there, it's also all the clubs."