New Names, Familiar Faces Soar at Chicago Blues Fest


Gary Clark Jr. performs at the Chicago Blues Fest on June 11.

(Photo: ©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc. )

The Chicago Blues Festival rarely booked blues-rock stars such as Gary Clark Jr. in its 33 previous incarnations in Grant Park. In its new home in Millennium Park this year (June 9–11), Clark was not only a compelling choice to bring down the curtain on the annual three-day celebration—he was the only logical choice.

The 33-year-old guitar slinger from Austin, Texas, is one of the biggest draws on the summer festival circuit because his music speaks to a youthful audience that the blues industry desperately needs to cultivate. But Clark finds himself straddling the artistic border of soul-blues, as exemplified by his sophisticated 2015 release The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim (Warner Bros.), and his reputation as “The Chosen One,” or the next Jimi Hendrix. He has kept the “rock hard” crowd satisfied with a pair of live discs, including the recently released Live North America 2016.

From the moment the lanky Clark strode triumphantly onto the Jay Pritzker Pavilion mainstage Sunday night and struck up a rollicking version of Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues” to the climactic “Numb,” in which he conjured his inner Hendrix, Clark wooed the just-over-21 crowd that mobbed the pavilion and the lawn beyond it. But he also produced just enough genuinely blues-based thrills to satisfy traditionalists.

He broke out a plaintive falsetto for several of the Sonny Boy Slim numbers, notably on “Our Love.” And while he is no Curtis Mayfield as a high-end soul balladeer, his voice is becoming as important an instrument for him as his six-string Gibson guitars. Still, his breakthrough tune, “Bright Lights,” and the radio-friendly “The Healing” elicited the strongest fan response.

While Clark appealed to the greatest common denominator, it was Rhiannon Giddens who used her semi-windup slot June 11 as a star-making vehicle. Giddens rose to prominence in Americana circles as a member of the old-timey group the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which was named top Beyond group in the 2011 DownBeat Critics Poll. Giddens is now out on the road in support of her superb new solo album, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch).

The Chocolate Drops’ music often suffered from their desire to sound sincere and authentic, but Giddens checked pretense at the door for her Millennium set, even on numbers that delved into the oppression of African-Americans. She warmed up the crowd with “The Love We Almost Had,” a jazzy, scatty N’Awlins dance tune. “We Could Fly,” the song from Freedom Highway that best exemplifies the Piedmont front porch folk-blues tradition, is a deeply spiritual narrative about slaves whose spirits fly back to their homeland.

The Greensboro, North Carolina, vocalist went a little bit country for a soulful reading of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” and raised the roof on the Staple Singers’ civil rights anthem “Freedom Highway.” Her band members, all of whom played on the album, proved the perfect complement to the leader, staying deep in the pocket when required and sparkling on a variety of vintage instruments when they took their turn in the spotlight.

Friday’s mainstage headliner, Billy Branch, came ready to party, with a set that celebrated the 40th anniversary of his band, Sons of Blues. Branch had not only a three-piece horn section and a trio of female vocalists in tow, but an illustrious lineup of SOB alums as well. During his epic, two-hour set, Branch paid tribute “to one of the world’s greatest harp players and one of my teachers, James Cotton.”

Cotton was originally booked to play the fest in the Friday slot, an engagement made shortly before his death on March 16. Branch summoned his full power to match the intensity of “Mr. Superharp” on the Cotton showpiece “The Creeper.” And by one count, it took 21 current and former SOBs and support personnel to wrap up the Cotton tribute with Big Joe Turner’s “Flip Flop And Fly.”

Branch was also at the top of his game for an emotion-drenched, vibrato-laced harp solo during his guest turn with rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith earlier Friday evening on “Glory.” The well-decorated movie soundtrack number, co-written by Rhymefest with Common and John Legend, was a reminder that the blues lives on in many forms, including hip-hop. DB

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December 2022
Kenny Barron
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