The weather was great. The crowds were huge. There were some really good performances. I have some comments about the sets on the Petrillo Stage, maybe you have some comments, too.
Every year I’m invited to be the main MC, start to finish, every day, at the Petrillo Music Shell Stage at the Chicago Blues festival. This gives me a chance to meet with the performers, watch the shows from the side of the stage and follow the backstage drama.
Hanging with the musicians is a treat. Downstairs from the stage there are four dressing rooms that surround a large room where meals are served. It’s fun to have dinner with the bands and get to know everybody. Watching the show from a chair on the side of the stage is a rare privilege. We’re right up close as the show is going on. It’s especially cool if you’re a fan of the drums because that’s mostly what we hear from there. The P.A. speakers aim out toward the audience and therefore away from the stage, but the drummers are right there. My favorite drummer of the weekend is definitely Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith. (His father was Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, so that’s how he got his name. His eyes really aren’t beady at all, in fact my wife thinks he should be called Kenny “Pretty Eyes” Smith.)
The stage managers, Jan Watson and Jill Watson, are a lot of fun to be with and it can be interesting to get their perspective on the shows. Timing is very important at a festival like this. There is a published start time and a closing time set by the city. Every show needs to begin and end on time. If any of the early acts were to run long that would take that many minutes away from the headliner because the show is going to end when it’s supposed to end. That’s where some of the drama comes in. Not all the musicians are always on time for their sound-check, or even their shows. Often the amount of time songs take is wrongly estimated by a performer and that means the stage manager has to starts giving hand signals to wrap up the show. A band never wants to drop their last song because that’s often the big finale, the most important song.
Friday night was devoted to Texas blues as a tribute to Lightning Hopkins. The evening began with the Reverend K. M. Williams who reminded me of the Hill Country blues of North Mississippi by people like R. L. Burnside. Next up was Milton Hopkins and Jewel Brown. Great guitar from Milton and singing from Jewel, both part way between blues and jazz. It was all guitar for the headliner Texas Johnny Brown.
Saturday began with Paul Kaye paying tribute to David Honeyboy Edwards. The celebration of Muddy Waters Disciples that followed was a highlight. Kenny Smith played on his father’s drum set and took a couple of vocals. Mud Morganfield sounded very much like his father Muddy Waters. And Bob Margolin is always excellent and he’s especially good at making sure everyone knows who the tribute is for. Floyd Taylor, son of soul singer Johnnie Taylor was a favorite of many, but not me so much. He’s a excellent vocalist and it was good to have a soul/blues singer, but for the Saturday night headline slot, and coming right after the Muddy Waters based music of the previous set, I wish there had been a more blues oriented act with original music at that point.
Sunday began with a tribute to Koko Taylor. Koko’s Taylor’s Blues Machine band was there with lead guitarist Vino Louden who survived a van crash years ago and though he was told it would be a long time before he would walk again, and that he might never play guitar again, he played great and it was wonderful to see him back in action. Jackie Scott, Dietra Farr, Nora Jean Bruso and Chick Rogers each turned in passionate vocal performances in their tribute to The Queen.
Mavis Staples closed the fest with an outstanding set. Her band is a perfect match for her with guitarist Rick Holmstrom managing to both be himself and also remind listeners of Pops Staples. Now Mavis has rejoined the Bonnie Raitt tour.
Now let’s all get out there and enjoy live blues at some of the many, fine blues nightclubs we have in the Chicago area and support our amazing wealth of excellent Chicago based blues artists until next year’s Chicago Blues Festival.