CHICAGO BLUES FESTIVAL: 2019 REVIEW
POSTED:: June 12, 2020
FILED UNDER:: General
words and photos by WMSE DJ Sonia
The premier summer experience for those who enjoy listening to Blues music outdoors is the annual Chicago Blues Festival, which marked its 36th year near Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago from Friday, June 7 to Sunday, June 9, 2019. With 11 hours of music on six stages each day at Millennium Park, there was an abundance of choices for fans to listen to many of the best Chicago and Delta Blues musicians, as well as musicians from other parts of the U.S. This past year, Bettye LaVette and Ruthie Foster, two very captivating and innovative performers, were the headliners on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, and a special tribute to Chicago Blues Piano master Otis Spann took place on Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps the most special aspect of the Chicago Blues Fest is the opportunity to listen to established musicians and, also, to discover musicians that may not be as well-known but deserve wider recognition. At The Front Porch Stage on the afternoon of the first day, accomplished drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, son of the late great Blues drummer, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, performed with his band, The House Bumpers, following a set by world-renowned bass player, Bob Stroger, with whom Kenny released the album, Keepin’ It Together in 2014. Instead of being behind the drum kit, Kenny sang his own original songs with the help of his three very young children, and it was very moving to witness yet another generation being raised on the Blues.
Afterwards, Muddy Waters’ youngest son, Joseph “Mojo’ Morganfield, a very talented and energetic singer, performed songs of his father’s, including “Caledonia,” “Can’t Get No Grindin’, and “Kansas City,” with The Mannish Boyz. The band included guitarist Rick Kreher, who had performed with Mojo’s dad, as well as his brothers, Mud Morganfield and Big Bill Morganfield. Unlike previous years, the music continued at The Front Porch Stage until the end of each night.
Blues harmonica legend, Charlie Musselwhite, started the evening’s performances at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the main stage of the festival, with another Blues harmonica legend, Billy Boy Arnold, as his special guest. Musselwhite mentioned that he had known Billy Boy Arnold for a very long time and that they used to trade 78 RPM records, along with Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) Williamson. Billy Boy Arnold sang “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman,” and both musicians played harmonica on “What’s on The Menu, Mama?”, as well as at least one song by Little Walter. After Billy Boy Arnold left the stage, Charlie Musselwhite drew upon his own vast repertoire before bringing onstage another guest, Johnny Burgin, with whom Musselwhite recorded two songs on Johnny’s recent album, Johnny Burgin Live! He also played James Cotton’s song, “West Helena Blues” and reminisced about James Cotton. Then, he performed “Strange Land,” originally released on his first album, after he mentioned how he was 18 years old when he came to Chicago in 1962, and the song described how he felt that he was a stranger in a strange land at the time. Although Musselwhite grew up in Memphis, he lived and played in Chicago in the 1960’s at a time when Little Walter and many other notable Chicago Blues musicians lived and performed there. Musselwhite told the audience, “If I had more time, I would tell you some really good stories.”
After that very special set of music and memories by Charlie Musselwhite came a “Proclamation of June 7, 2019 as Jimmy Johnson Day” by the Mayor of Chicago, before 90 year old stellar guitarist Jimmy Johnson, joined by Rico McFarland on second guitar, played an electrifying set that included a powerful rendition of “Cold, Cold Feeling.” One of the most remarkable (and stunning) aspects of Johnson’s performance was that he truly played as if he was at least 20 years younger.
The final set of the evening was by Soul Blues entertainer Bobby Rush, who engaged the audience with his superb singing and harmonica playing. Rush also reminisced during his performance and mentioned how he had lived in Chicago for many years but had recently relocated to Jackson, Mississippi. Rush’s well-known risqué antics especially elevated the excitement of the audience and closed the night’s performances with lots of laughter and uplifted spirits.