Chicago Blues Festival Lineup Celebrates Rock, R&B, Hip-Hop


Gary Clark Jr. will close out the Chicago Blues Fest on June 11.

(Photo: Courtesy the artist)

Chicago’s blues tradition—urban, electrified and full of soul—has had a profound impact on the development of today’s popular music, with an especially pronounced influence on r&b and hip-hop. That connection will be celebrated at the 34th Annual Chicago Blues Festival, happening June 9–11 in its new home in Millennium Park. Performances by some of the leading artists in blues, soul, r&b and hip-hop will take place on four stages, with additional film screenings and educational programs held in venues across the city.

On opening night, the festival will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues. For this special performance, blues harpist and three-time Grammy Award-nominated artist Branch will bring together many of the artists who have been part of the band since the first 1977 performance in Berlin. The set will include a special tribute to the legendary harpist James Cotton, who was a mentor to Branch.

Grammy- and Oscar-winning rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith will perform an opening night tribute to the influence that blues music has had on hip-hop. During his set, he will be joined by Branch. Rhymefest grew up on Chicago’s South Side. He won a Grammy Award for co-writing the legendary hit record “Jesus Walks” with longtime friend Kanye West. In 2015, Smith co-wrote “Glory” alongside John Legend and Common for the 2014 motion picture Selma, which received the 2015 Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Two-time Grammy-nominated artist and American blues legend John Primer and The Real Deal will kick off the evening’s performances. John Primer was the bandleader and guitarist for Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Magic Slim & The Teardrops. Primer’s personal accolades include a Lifetime Achievement Award that reflects his countless contributions to the history of Chicago blues.  

On June 10, the festival will welcome Stax legend and soul star William Bell, who won a 2017 Grammy Award for his album This is Where I Live, his first major release in four decades. The renowned singer-songwriter, a member of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, was honored in 2016 with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the 15th-Annual Americana Honors Awards Show.

Later that evening, Theo Huff and the New Agenda Band will bring their contemporary soul-blues style to the festival stage. Huff began his career in musical theater productions, working with Jackie Taylor at the Black Ensemble Theater. His Southern Soul sound was influenced by Bobby Rush, Tyrone Davis, Will Clayton and others.

Opening the June 10 performances will be Mississippi native, Nellie “Tiger” Travis, a southern soul artist with a bold voice. Early in her career, KoKo Taylor was a major influence, mentor and friend. Earlier this year she made her late-night TV debut by performing her 2008 hit “Slap Yo’ Weave Off” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon

And on June 11, blues-rock musician and Texas native Gary Clark Jr. will bring the festival to a close. Having recently impressed audiences at the 2017 Grammy Awards with a performance alongside with Bell, Clark recently released a new live album, Live/North America 2016, which features unreleased live recordings including the songs “The Healing” and “My Baby’s Gone.”
Leading up to the Chicago Blues Festival, during the months of May and June, several preview performances and film screenings will take place at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St.) and at Daley Plaza (50 West Washington).  The “official” Chicago Blues Festival preview on Daley Plaza will take place June 5, featuring Chicago Wind with Matthew Skoller and Deitra Farr. For complete details, visit
On May 30 in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater, young musicians will take part in the Bridges to the Blues Showcase, presented by Donda’s House and AARP. Featuring Rhymefest, this showcase will shine an opportunity for multigenerational artists to create original music—inspired by the blues—for a chance to perform at the Chicago Blues Festival. For details, visit

The festival will also feature an entertainment programmed by the Blues Kids Foundation and the Windy City Blues Society. The Blues Kids Foundation area offers harmonica lessons and performances by the next generation of blues artists. The Windy City Blues Society features an eclectic lineup of artists from Chicago and around the country.

For more information visit the festival’s website. DB 

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