The carcasses of discarded coolers and flimsy folding chairs are long gone as the 2014 Chicago Blues Festival has wrapped up its annual run in Grant Park. The glittering panoramic view of the city from the Petrillo Band Shell will now go on without a 3-day musical backdrop. The blues tourists have disbanded and the “staycationers” have gone back to their day jobs. In true Chicago fashion, it’s “wait until next year” when groups of friends will once again converge on blue tarps or gather in the grove.
By all accounts, it was another successful fest. The weather was stellar, the crowd was mellow and the music flowed out from every stage at the world’s largest free festival. There were the usual tributes to artists who have crossed over and acts like Nikki Hill and the Carolina Chocolate Drops broadened their fan base after inspired sets before an appreciative audience. Rumor has it that even Mayor Rahm Emmanuel cracked a smile during this feel-good event.
But while a good time was had by most everyone, there were rumblings that there was not a whole lot of actual blues music going down in and around Grant Park. And that has many music lovers concerned about the state of the blues in the city of its birth.
Chicago was once the “promised land” for countless southern blacks who brought their guitars and harmonicas to play in juke joints after working a long day at the stockyards or steel mills. Now most of these jukes are just vacant lots in Bronzeville or Chicago’s west side.
In a further affront to blues lovers, the hallowed home of Muddy Waters was once targeted for demolition and has since been sold to an unknown buyer. As the home that hosted a “who’s who of the blues,” this place should have been snapped up by the city of Chicago and turned into a blues museum.
It’s more than a bit ironic that the southern cities and states that were once shunned by millions of African-Americans are making the most of their musical heritage. Memphis pays homage to everyone from Elvis Presley and Sun Studios to Stax records and other points of interest. Ditto for “ground zero” in Clarksdale, Mississippi as the small city continues to capitalize on its deep blues connection by hosting everything from Juke Joint and Sunflower Music Festivals to continually increasing the scope of its own blues museum.
Sure, there is a marker near the site of the Illinois Central Rail station that was the embarkation point for so many but it was erected by the Mississippi Trail Marker commission.
But it’s not all gloom and doom on the Chicago Blues front. Because for the past 21 years, Bob Koester and his Jazz Record Mart have hosted a free Sunday blues brunch that treats visitors to a full plate of straight-up Chicago blues from a steady parade of Delmark recording artists.
The brunch itself is nothing to write home about as it’s just your basic coffee and rolls. But both locals and internationals flock to the continental breakfast surrounded by vinyl, iconic posters and fellow blues lovers.
Phil and Nancy Duffin of Downers Grove are just two of the many who wake up early and make tracks over to the Record Mart at 27 E. Illinois Street. Ditto for Ms. Marc Taylor, of Clarksdale Mississippi who said that “it’s better to be an old blues woman than an old bag” as she shook away her aches and pains to boogie by the record bins.
The Duffins haven’t missed a Blues Fest since 1989 and have been regulars at the Record Mart brunch for about 7 years running now. Nancy Duffin said that they “love the vibe you get in there” as she checked out the vintage posters and historic artifacts throughout the small space. At the show’s conclusion she added that, “this year was just wonderful with Eddie C.” and added that, “you could just see the camaraderie” between the artists.
The “Eddie C” she was referring to would be Eddie C. Campbell who suffered a severe stroke while on tour in Germany in 2013. Last year, the blues community rallied to his aid and held a benefit at Rosa’s in his honor. The Duffins attended that event so it was especially heartwarming to see “Eddie C” close out the Sunday blues brunch.
And what a treat it was as everyone from rising stars like Rockin’ Johnny and Toronzo Cannon to iconic performers like Sharon Lewis, Little Al Thomas and Linsey Alexander taking their turn on the small performance “stage.” Guitarist Dave Specter summed it up when he said, “The Jazz Record Mart rocks. There are not a lot of stores like this anymore.”
Not a lot of stores could squeeze in the talent that played on that morning, either. Kevin Johnson, Director of Promotions for Delmark Records gave a detailed dossier of all the performers who each played three song sets. You’ll find the complete rundown below.
However, the future of the blues shouldn’t rest squarely on the shoulders of octogenarian Koester and his small store set off in the shadows of the city’s skyscrapers and behemoth building projects. Each and every year, the Record Mart attracts an eclectic audience from every corner of the globe. They buy t-shirts, books, and vinyl before taking cabs back to the Blues Fest or other points of interest. In short, they are spending money on goods and services right here in the great city of Chicago.
But even more money could be pouring into the city’s coffers if blues tourism was developed and promoted like it is in Mississippi and other regions. This could be a boon to Bronzeville, the South Michigan Avenue corridor and many other neighborhoods.
Yes, Chicago is recognized as the home of the blues, but there is a need to do more to welcome music lovers into the community through the nurturing and development of the many authentic blues sites all around the area. Give the blues pioneers and artists their dues and make some money, too!
Artists at the 2014 Sunday Blues Brunch:
- Rockin’ Johnny Band with special guest Aki Kumar on harp, Rockin’ Johnny Burgin on guitar and vocals, Rick Kreher on rhythm guitar, John Sefner on bass and Steve Bass on drums.
- Taildragger with Martin Lang on harp.
- Dave Weld and the Imperial Flames with Dave Weld on guitar and vocals and Monica Garcia on second vocals with Dave Kaye on bass and Jeff Taylor on drums.
- Dave Specter on guitar with Sharon Lewis on vocals.
- Mike Wheeler, Toronzo Cannon and Linsey Alexander all with David Forte on bass and Jeff Taylor on drums. Kate Moss came in to play second guitar with Alexander with Little Al Thomas taking his turn on vocals.
- Willie Buck on vox with Quique Gomex from Spain on harp and Luca Giordano on guitar with the Rockin Johnny Band
- Eddie C. Campbell