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Clip: Chicago blues festival

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  • Carl Z.
    23RD BLUES FESTIVAL Acts a mix of genre s roots,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 13, 2006

      Acts a mix of genre's roots, future

      By Andy Downing
      Special to the Tribune
      Published June 12, 2006

      Playing to a scattered crowd early Friday afternoon, one-time Chicago
      resident Louisiana Red announced, "The blues go all kinds of ways,
      ladies and gentlemen," a statement that perfectly frames the 23rd
      Annual Blues Festival. The diversity in the genre was particularly
      evident among side-stage performers.

      On Friday guitarist Duwayne Burnside, the late R.L. Burnside's son,
      and his band the Mississippi Mafia delivered a rockin' 90-minute set
      driven by Burnside's sparse, hypnotic soloing, which he developed
      playing in Mississippi juke joints alongside the likes of Junior
      Kimbrough. More important, as one of the Fest's youngest performers,
      he seems to offer some hope for the music moving forward.

      Contrast this with another weekend highlight, Saturday's Master Set,
      which reached back to the genre's earliest roots. With nearly four
      centuries of experience between them, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, 90,
      Robert Jr. Lockwood, 91, Henry Townsend, 96 and Homesick James, also
      96, play the type of blues normally heard on dusty, crackling 78
      r.p.m. discs. Even their style of dress -- all four favored suits and
      fedoras -- made the performers look like grainy photographs come to

      There was nothing dated about the music, though. Edwards sang with the
      intensity of a Baptist preacher, punctuating each verse with raw-boned
      guitar picking that sounded like tendons snapping violently back into
      place. Conversely, Lockwood, who was mentored by iconic guitarist
      Robert Johnson, played with a subtle musicality steeped in jazz as
      much as the blues.

      James "Blood" Ulmer followed many of Lockwood's cues during his
      Saturday performance, adapting his free-jazz style within a loose
      blues structure. Cradling his guitar like an infant as he expertly ran
      his fingers up and down the fretboard, Ulmer searched for new wrinkles
      in tunes such as "Take My Music Back to the Church." But poor
      acoustics and Ulmer's surprising decision to play it safe made the
      90-minute set a tad monotonous.

      Better was Friday's pairing of Mississippi guitarist Vasti Jackson and
      New Orleans pianist Henry Butler. Like many of the festival
      headliners, the two played a shortened afternoon set at one of the
      Fest's side stages -- a move that often drained the excitement from
      the main event.

      There was little thrill seeing Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Elvin
      Bishop at Petrillo after watching him casually swap songs with mentor
      Smokey Smothers in an intimate setting earlier the same day. Jackson
      and Butler worked around this handicap by highlighting wildly
      different sides of the collaboration in each setting. The early set
      was built around the swamp-funk of Butler's piano and his deep, basset
      hound voice.

      When they moved to the main stage, Vasti was given free rein, and he
      responded by coaxing a series of bobcat snarls from his instrument,
      convulsing as if his guitar strings were high-voltage wires.

      Sunday's performances continued to flaunt a diverse array of musical
      styles. The Lee Boys played a buoyant brand of blues, with
      celebratory, lap-steel infused compositions having more in common with
      Kool & the Gang than mournful cries of a chain gang. Straying even
      further from traditional roots was the Silk Road Experiment, which
      looked to the Far East for musical inspiration.

      Although official attendance totals for the festival was not available
      by deadline, below-average temperatures and a lack of similar
      ingenuity in the main stage bookings, which tended toward generic,
      Baby Boomer blues, make it highly unlikely that this year's Blues Fest
      will top last year's record numbers.
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