Clip: Chicago blues festival
23RD BLUES FESTIVAL
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
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.