Performance review: 2014 Chicago Blues Festival

Jul 10, 2014

The 31st Annual Chicago Blues Fest, this year sub-titled “Blues by the Lake”, was the weekend of June 13-15 in Grant Park. The panoramic  views from this Lakefront park are extraordinary—Lake Michigan, Buckingham Fountain, and the magnificent Chicago Skyline to the north and west. The views and the music are free.

Credit Photo courtesy of Ben Payton
Friday morning I made my annual pre-noon visit to the stage sponsored by the State of Mississippi—the “Jackson Mississippi Rhythm & Blues Stage” for a panel discussion of the life and music of John Lee Curtis “Sonny Boy” Williamson (1914-1948) with Billy Boy Arnold and Mark Hummel. Hummel and Arnold are Chicago blues harp players who took the Petrillo Stage later that night for a blowout celebration of the centennial birth of Sonny Boy Williamson. But, on this Friday morning they were in panel discussion with Dick Sherman, writer and musicologist. While Hummel served as moderator, Sherman primed Arnold for stories of Williamson in Chicago in the 1940’s.  Arnold met Williamson in 1941 when at age seven he walked to his home at 3226 Giles Street on the South Side to ask for lessons.Arnold honored Williamson as “the first harmonica player of blues music on records of note” and “the first harp player/leader to use a combo” on a recording. And, for historical reference, he remarked “in 1938 T-Bone Walker brought electric guitar to music” for the first time. In the 1940’s, “blues records were everywhere (in Chicago).” Williamson recorded on the Bluebird label, a recording arm of RCA Victor. A contemporary, Bo Diddley, who recorded in Chicago at Chess Records, was the subject of discussion as the panel digressed, with the origin of his name being strongly rumored about.  With the conclusion of this fascinating recognition of Chicago blues history, the music commenced with the return of a Mississippi native to Chicago, guitarist Ben Payton, to play a brisk and bluesy one-hour set with the help of bassist Mike Morrison and drummer Merle Perkins. Upon taking up residence in Mississippi, Payton has focused upon his Delta blues roots; his most recent recording, titled Diggin’ Up Old Country Blues, pays tribute to the early Delta blues masters. And, so went Payton’s performance today, interrupted twice by necessary guitar tuning—“I usually carry two guitars, but with the airplanes (baggage fees), I got to make adjustments.” Here is the set list by title or verse lines: 

  1. “Willie Mae” by Big Bill Broonzy
  2. A Robert Johnson tune: “You might call the law babe, and they might shoot me down; when I’m dead and gone, you might mess around. You might bury my body, down on the Greyhound line; so that my spirit, can take a Greyhound ride.”
  3. “South Bound Train” by Big Bill Broonzy
  4. “Whiskey Blues” by Muddy Waters. “I ain’t drinkin’ no more whiskey; instead of makin’ my baby happy, it’s bringin’ tears to my eyes … you done took all my money, you done took my baby, too.”
  5. “Tallahatchie River Blues” by Mattie Delaney
  6. “Crossroads Blues” by Robert Johnson
  7. “Boogie Child” by Ben Payton. This is a relaxed, easy flowing original that had the huge crowd swaying.
  8. “Malted Milk” by Robert Johnson. “I keep drinkin’ malted milk, tryin’ to drive my blues away.”
  9. “Dust My Broom” by Robert Johnson.

And for an encore, “Smokestack Lightnin’” by Johnny Otis.  The performance on the huge Petrillo Stage that Friday night had ten high-standing microphones across the front line and, per my unofficial count, six or more performers blowing harmonica (Billy Boy Arnold, Marcella Detroit, Billy Branch, Omar Coleman, Mark Hummel, and Corky Siegel) at once, and others—Rollo Radford (bass), Jim Schwall (guitars), Billy Flynn (guitar), Johnny Iguana (keyboard), and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith (drums) providing rhythm and harmonies. Include suburban resident Harvey Mandel, “played with the Rolling Stones” per the night’s leader Siegel, as a walk-on observer. A terrific blues party—the other headliners that night were the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Otis Taylor; a very interesting musical experience for me seeing Denverite Taylor playing with his band before huge crowds at his birthplace, while Chicago bluesman Lurrie Bell was playing the Greeley Blues Jam in Colorado.Additional weekend headliners appearing at the Chicago Blues Festival included Willie Clayton, Bettye LaVette, Aaron Neville, and Dr. John.