Winter Blues Summit Launches with Big Talent, Rocky Start

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John Primer (left) and Steve Bell perform at the Winter Blues Summit in Arlington Heights, Illinois, on Feb. 1.

(Photo: Janet Mami Takayama)

The blues experience in the northwest Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights is usually reserved for tapped-out horseplayers at Arlington International Racecourse. But for three days beginning Jan. 31, music lovers were treated to a weekend of sets by numerous acclaimed Chicago blues artists. The Winter Blues Summit, the brainchild of Chicago promoter Dave Katzman in cooperation with venue Hey Nonny, utilized the eclectic music club and three other venues within the glistening Metropolis Performing Arts Centre complex.

The environment was decidedly more upscale than Theresa’s, a spartan basement blues club on the South Side where several of the Blues Summit performers once plied their trade. As the shifting landscape of the blues takes it further afield from inner-city venues where Southern migrants congregated during the postwar blues explosion, clubs like Hey Nonny are keeping the blues alive—albeit in a more sterilized setting.

The lineup was solid and deep, featuring what Katzman, the head of Straight Arrow Productions, described as “nearly every top Chicago blues group that wasn’t on the road at the time.”

The most intriguing billing during Saturday’s 14 hours of music was 91-year-old Chicago blues standard-bearer Jimmy Johnson and his 83-year-old soul singer brother Syl, who rarely play together. And while both shared a fine backing band that included Buddy Guy’s keyboardist Marty Sammon and guitarist Rico McFarland, the Johnsons never shared the bandstand—which was a missed opportunity.

The elder Johnson played half the set and left the stage, and then Syl stepped in to finish up. Jimmy acknowledged the unusual surroundings after a round of hearty applause, stating, “They told me everybody around here had a lot of money and they might not have the blues. I’m not from around here.”

Jimmy is enjoying overdue late-career success, with a new Delmark album, Every Day Of Your Life, but his plaintive tenor was in particularly fine form for his longtime showstopper “Cold, Cold Feeling.” Syl, doubling on guitar and harmonica, reprised the best of his Hi Records years with a nuanced “Take Me To The River” before rapping and playfully insinuating his way through the 1982 single “Ms. Fine Brown Frame.”

McFarland and Sammon joined fellow Chicago-based instrumentalists Bob Stroger, Donald Kinsey and Billy Flynn for a panel discussion that preceded a screening of Sidemen: Long Road to Glory, a 2016 documentary by fellow panelist Scott D. Rosenbaum. The stellar musicians on the panel swapped fascinating stories about working with the likes of Albert King and Otis Rush and grappled with questions about the future of the blues.

Singer-guitarist Toronzo Cannon, who has logged several years working as a Chicago bus driver, threw his hat in the ring for future blues stardom with a fiery set that drew heavily on his latest Alligator disc, The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp. The wah-wah-laden title track, for which Cannon employs a Curtis Mayfield-like falsetto, would have made a perfect theme song for HBO’s recently concluded series The Deuce.

Cannon is playing his newest material with increased confidence, but the biggest response came for the title song from his earlier Alligator effort, The Chicago Way. Like much of Cannon’s repertoire, the song is part novelty number, part guitar pyrotechnics. It’s welcome relief when Cannon eschews the blues-rock groove in favor of deep-blues grinders.

John Primer, a guitarist in Muddy Waters’ final band, was once considered a leading light among the Chicago area’s younger blues players. At age 74, Primer is a steady, reliable practitioner of the 1950s classic Chicago sound who did six years early in his career as Theresa’s bandleader. He never found stardom on his own, however. His Saturday set was spiced up by the showmanship of Steve Bell, whose harmonica work harkens back to his late father, onetime Waters harpist Carey Bell. Primer’s deep-in-the-pocket vocals worked well on standards such as “Rainy Night In Georgia” and “Slip Away,” both from his latest, self-released album, The Soul Of A Blues Man.

Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, an international touring band that was slated to perform on Sunday, didn’t make it to the gig because their van broke down in Minnesota, en route to the festival. So, on Sunday morning, Katzman assembled an impromptu group to fill that performance slot, recruiting artists who already had been booked to perform during the event: Tom Holland, Kate Moss, Armando Cortez, Greg Campbell and Tom Rezetko.

Numerous factors could have contributed to the event’s light attendance, including the cost of admission ($60 for Friday only passes, $120 for Saturday only and $60 for Sunday only, with discounts for three-day packages and a free a music brunch the last two days).

Despite the disappointing ticket sales, Katzman outlined ambitious plans to make the Winter Blues Summit an annual event. “Why not?” he said. “The Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans and the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, they’ve been doing that [annually] forever.” He said he’d like to expand into the adjacent Metropolis auditorium and to include more national touring acts. The chosen weekend presented hurdles for the promoter, not only conflicting with the Super Bowl but also with the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, an event that annually hosts dedicated fans and blues societies that might otherwise have been drawn to the Arlington Heights festival.

Katzman cited advantages to the Winter Blues Summit’s position on the calendar, explaining, “We wanted to do it at a time where people are getting cabin fever. And if we did it during the summer, we’d have competition from all the outdoor festivals.” DB




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