Sweet home Chicago, indeed. With zero precipitation, higher attendance figures, and a 26 percent increase in food and beverage sales, the recent 2012 Chicago Blues Festival certainly resonated with music lovers who flocked to Grant Park from every corner of the world.
They came by trains from Mississippi and planes from Pennsylvania. There were bass players from Brazil and blues-loving journalists from Holland, Poland, and other global datelines. Some, like first-time attendee Seth Brandes of Somis, California, extended a business trip to get a glimpse of acts ranging from Texas Johnny Brown, Mavis Staples, and Mud Morganfield to up-and-comers like the Homemade Jamz Blues Band and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Corps.
While much has been made about the NATO summit and the need to put Chicago in a positive light, festival goers could surmise that “everything’s gonna be all right” simply by trolling around Grant Park at dusk. As the setting sun bounced off the city’s majestic skyline, smiling police officers strolled past surrounded by joyful music lovers from every walk of life. The blues might have been playing in the background but an upbeat vibe prevailed throughout the course of the free three-day festival that ran from Friday, June 8 through Sunday, June 10.
It’s this atmosphere that draws so many to Chicago for every single festival despite daunting travel obstacles and harsh financial realities. Alex Yankowsky of Philadelphia recently lost his job but he wasn’t about to break his 19-year string of Chicago Blues Festival appearances. He booked a cheap flight out of Allentown by way of Philadelphia and flew in on Sunday morning for an all-day reunion with his “Evil Monkey” gang on the tarp at their usual spot in the park. He planned on sleeping at the airport before flying home on Monday morning.
Many musicians—both local and national—were also happy to have the opportunity to showcase their talents before such a devoted audience. Chicago-based street musician Mississippi Gabe Carter who played at the Windy City Blues Society stage typifies the well-traveled route of today's bluesmen. Born in South Bend, Indiana in 1983, Carter got his first taste of the blues at the tender age of five when his dad gave him a guitar that he purchased for five bucks at a garage sale. A few years later, Carter watched a documentary featuring Jack Owens on Bentonia, Mississippi and developed a deep love for the country blues style common to this region of the Magnolia State.
The state of Mississippi was well represented throughout the course of the three-day weekend but the Lone Star State had its turn on Friday night as the festival paid homage to the late Texas-based musician Lightnin’ Hopkins with a line-up that included Reverend K.M Williams, Milton Hopkins, and Jewel Brown. Texas Johnny Brown was the evening’s headliner and this legendary “Defender of the Blues” certainly gained many new devotees after an inspired performance.
The Homemade Jamz Blues Band also attracted converts following rousing appearances on both the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage as well as Sunday’s encore performance at the Front Porch Stage where a long line of autograph seekers waited for the youthful trio of Mississippi musicians. Ryan Perry, the group's 20-year old vocalist and guitarist was equally enthusiastic. He said, "this has been probably one of the best shows in Chicago that we have performed for. The crowd was great, weather was fine, and it was a perfect scene for the blues!"
On the other end of the spectrum, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and 62-year music industry veteran Mavis Staples closed out Sunday night with a masterful set that included songs from the civil rights era as well as a tribute to the late Levon Helm via his song, “The Weight.” The Staple Singers’ 1971 hit, “I’ll Take You There” wrapped up the 2012 festival in fine fashion before the satisfied masses were sent packing.
While Grant Park served as “Ground Zero” for both musicians and fans alike, there were many other free events around the city. WXRT kicked off the weekend with its 15th Annual Blues Fest broadcast at Buddy Guy’s Legends on Thursday night. Co-hosted by longtime WXRT DJ Tom Marker and singer Shemekia Copeland, this show attracted an enthusiastic crowd who were treated to sets by Copeland, Joe Louis Walker and his band, Ronnie Baker Brooks (with a special appearance by father, Lonnie) and renowned blues harmonica player, Billy Branch.
Another popular side note was the annual Delmark Blues Brunch held at the Jazz Record Mart on East Grand Avenue. In addition to free sweets, beverages, and other treats, this local music landmark served up some smoking tunes by Delmark recording artists like Mississippi Heat with Inetta Visor, Toronzo Cannon, Tail Dragger, Grana’ Louise, and Eddie C. Campbell.
Since the Jazz Record Mart’s inception back in 1959, it has gained acclaim as a great source for rare jazz and blues albums. At Sunday’s Blues Brunch, the crowded store served as the go-to spot for a melting pot of international visitors, slightly hung over locals, and a few homeless folks.
The Jazz Record Mart might have attracted a motley crew on a muggy Sunday morning but the atmoshphere indoors was quite harmonious—just as it was throughout the course of the 2012 Chicago Blues Festival. Phil Duffin, who along with his wife Nancy have been at every fest since 1990, summed it up when he said, “everyone is here because it’s where they want to be—not where they have to be!”