Alligator Records Artists Celebrate Milestone at Chicago Blues Fest


Shemekia Copeland headlines the Alligator Records 45th Anniversary celebration at the Chicago Blues Festival on June 10.

(Photo: ©Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos)

Chicago blues kingpin Buddy Guy not only recorded John Hiatt’s “Where Is The Next One Coming From,” but he also frequently cites the title when wondering aloud about the state of the blues.

As Guy’s Delta-bred contemporaries depart this life and their potential replacements run from their musical heritage, the question takes on added urgency.

Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer clearly has invested a great deal of gray matter into contemplating this uncertain future. As the enduring Chicago-based blues label marks its 45th anniversary this year, Alligator used its opening-day showcase at the Chicago Blues Festival on June 10 to offer a beacon of hope.

Artists who hang their hats at the ’Gator were featured exclusively in the evening program on the Petrillo Music Shell mainstage in Grant Park and were ubiquitous on the side stages throughout the day.

Vocalist Shemekia Copeland cut her teeth as a recording artist with Alligator as a teenager in the late 1990s and left for the relative major-label riches of Telarc in 2009. She’s now back in the fold with Alligator, providing the cleanup hitter that Iglauer’s team has been lacking since the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, began to suffer major health problems in the last years of her life.

Taylor died in 2009, and while it would be inaccurate to say that Copeland has inherited the blues crown, she’s certainly on the short list of performers who deserve top billing at any blues fest.

Her headline appearance on opening night of Chicago’s celebration of blues music was more a workmanlike affirmation of her exquisite artistry than a jaw-dropping highlight. That wasn’t due to lack of effort by the vocalist or her meticulously rehearsed backing outfit, but more a function of the limitations of the venue and time restrictions imposed on the artists.

Maybe the badly outdated bandshell is adequate for the kind of big, sloppy, overpopulated jam session that ends with an obligatory “Sweet Home Chicago”—Copeland’s curtain closer—but the acoustics are more suited to a midsized cultural outpost than a world-class mecca for the performing arts.

Add to the mix a hot, sticky evening and a guest artist format for every act on the bill and you end up with a sense of relief when the last wailing guitar riff of the evening subsides.

Still, Copeland remains the proverbial “next one” in blues circles. Opening with a trio of songs from 2015’s acclaimed album Outskirts of Love, Copeland moved seamlessly between roots-rock numbers and deep blues. While her last few recordings are testaments to her ever-increasing depth and maturity, it was “Ghetto Child,” a song from her 1998 Alligator debut, Turn The Heat Up, that elicited the purest emotional response.

Co-written by her father, Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, and Don Robey, it’s a plaintive cry from a neglected little girl as she begs for change. The evocative solos from her two guitarists, Willie Scandlyn and Arthur Neilson, drew out every last drop of pathos.

Her blues fest set also featured a duet with fellow soul-blues powerhouse Curtis Salgado, who earlier in the day turned in an impressive solo set on the Crossroads Stage. A singer needs guts to cover Otis Redding’s gritty “Love Man,” but the vocalist-harpist from the Pacific Northwest pulled it off, just as he did on 2012’s Soul Shot.

But it’s when Salgado veers from his r&b base—as was the case on “I Know A Good Thing” from The Beautiful Lowdown, his Alligator debut—that things get even more interesting.

Perhaps the most inspired pairing of the evening was harpist-vocalist Corky Siegel with Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials on the main stage.

Best known for the pop-bluesy Siegel-Schwall Band of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as his unique forays into classical music with blues harp, Siegel didn’t miss a pulsating beat with the hard-rocking Imperials.

Lil’ Ed’s band may never dust off the bouncy “I Don’t Want You To Be My Girl” for another live show, but they handled it well while backing the Corkster. Lil’ Ed Williams is at his best, though, when conjuring the musical spirit of his late uncle, Chicago slide-guitar king J.B. Hutto. And after backing Siegel, he nearly ran it off the rails with the raucous “Hold That Train.”

Tommy Castro, the evening’s opening act, has transformed his sound from horn-drenched soul-blues to a more stripped-down, hard-rocking groove since his arrival at Alligator in 2009. The Bay Area native and his road-toughened band, the Painkillers, are veterans of the festival circuit and always turn in a solid show.

But the real star of the set was guest Toronzo Cannon. The CTA bus driver was making his 10th Blues Fest appearance, but his first since releasing his Alligator debut, The Chicago Way, which followed two strong efforts for Delmark.

Cannon polished his “next one” cred with his flashy guitar work on “Bad Contract” and a crowd-pleasing romp through “The Chicago Way.”

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December 2022
Kenny Barron
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