Chicago Blues Fest Rife with Diversity


Ruthie Foster performs on June 9 at the Chicago Blues Festival.

(Photo: ©Mark Sheldon)

Chicago Blues Festival Director Carlos Tortolero offered a succinct response when asked about the overarching theme of the June 7–9 event: “Diversity—and emerging acts.” In his first year of programming the fest, Tortolero and the festival committee assembled a remarkably diverse musical lineup. And throughout its 36-year history, this is an event that always has worked best when not hamstrung by adherence to a narrow definition of the blues.

But sometimes the original is still the greatest. A case in point was the opening act on June 7 on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion main stage: Charlie Musselwhite with Billy Boy Arnold. The two veteran harmonica players cut their musical teeth about a decade apart in Chicago, with Arnold playing on classic sides by Bo Diddley and the younger Musselwhite woodshedding with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Musselwhite kicked their set into gear with Eddie Taylor’s “I’m A Bad Boy,” and even at 75, clad all in black, with his aluminum briefcase full of blues harps, who would doubt him? Then Arnold emerged onstage, proclaiming, “I’m gonna sing nothing but the blues.” The pair swung out on Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” and shuffled through Arnold’s “What’s On The Menu Mama” before Musselwhite brought out Johnny Burgin, previewing their collaboration on Burgin’s upcoming Delmark album.

If Arnold, at age 84, defies Father Time, the 90-year-old Jimmy Johnson has reversed the aging process entirely. Johnson, the subject of a video tribute before his set, was the star of last year’s blues fest. And if his Pritzker gig this year is any indication, he’s established his status as a civic treasure richly deserving of an annual festival showcase. His plaintive tenor is the perfect vehicle for delivering heartfelt blues such as “Cold Cold Feeling,” and his fretwork is fluid and flawless.

“Monster” Mike Welch, 39, hasn’t roamed the blues highway nearly as long as Johnson or Arnold, but the Boston-bred artist got a severe jolt of deep blues in January, when Chicago bluesman Mike Ledbetter succumbed to complications of epilepsy at age 33. The pair formed the Welch-Ledbetter Connection after teaming up at the 2016 edition of the fest during an Otis Rush appreciation program. After Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s statement was read proclaiming June 9 Mike Ledbetter Day in Chicago, Welch opened with Elmore James’ “Goodbye Baby” (which he had dedicated to Ledbetter on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise soon after Ledbetter’s death).

The set drew heavily on their album together, Right Place, Right Time, highlighted by “I’m Gonna Move To Another Country” and “Can’t Sit Down.” Talented vocalist Andy Duncanson of the Kilborn Alley Blues Band sat in with Welch, to great effect.

Ruthie Foster, who closed the curtain on the fest on June 9, rose to stardom in 2007 with her fifth album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster. Fans and critics have affirmed the title through countless accolades ever since. Still, it took several tunes for the audience to warm up to Foster’s soul-blues-folk act. The gospel-schooled east Texas native knows when to emote her heart out and when to remain in the pocket. A few catcalls of “We came to party!” were silenced by her powerhouse rendition of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” and the reggae-tinged closer, “Real Love.”

Other acts ranged further afield from traditional blues fest fare. Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, whose shared Americana aesthetic has fueled an impressive artistic partnership, conjure Woody Guthrie along with Buck Owens and Lightnin’ Hopkins. They bookended their Saturday set on the Crossroads Stage with “Downey To Lubbock,” the title track from their 2018 album. Alvin’s gruff, whiskey-soaked baritone, combined Gilmore’s wispy tenor and solid support from the Guilty Ones—Alvin’s reliable backing band—made for adventuresome duets. Even Alvin favorites such as “Fourth Of July,” “Marie Marie” and “Dry River” were reinvigorated thanks to Gilmore’s input.

Among the Pritzker performers, perhaps the strongest crowd reaction was elicited by Larkin Poe. Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell clearly understood the challenge of facing down the blues purists in the audience, with lead singer and rhythm guitarist Rebecca declaring, “We spent a lot of time educating ourselves in the blues.” With that, they launched into Son House’s “Preachin’ Blues,” punctuated by an incessant stomp that devolved into monotony halfway through the set.

The Georgia-born Lovells are essentially party-time rockers who play their own “Bleached Blonde Bottle Blues” while reworking blues classics, with Megan’s dazzling slide guitar front and center. They may know the lyrics to “John The Revelator,” “Come On In My Kitchen” and other Delta standards, but they’re still learning some of the nuances.

A significant booking at the fest was the world music star Bombino, a native of Niger with a fascinating back-story. He’s surely the only blues fest performer who grew up in the nomadic Tuareg culture, served as Angelina Jolie’s African tour guide and lost two band members to soldiers’ gunfire. The North African desert bluesman plays hypnotic, almost trance-inducing solos in the style of Carlos Santana. Singing primarily in French, the former Goumour Almoctar perfected a sound that has been dubbed “Tuareggae” by bandmates. His Friday set energized blues pilgrims at the Crossroads stage. Diversity? You bet. DB