Chicago Blues Fest and Blues Clubs

Chicago blues fest crowd on a sunny May day. Margie Goldsmith photos.
Chicago blues fest crowd on a sunny Mayday. Margie Goldsmith photos.

Singing the Blues in Chicago: A Great Blues Fest and the best Blues clubs to Visit all Year Long

By Margie Goldsmith

Billy Branch at Kingston Mines.
Billy Branch at Kingston Mines.

“Let’s do a little Chicago soul slapping,” said blues artist Billy Branch as he put his hands together and sang, “All we need is the Chicago blues.”

My husband and I, along with everyone else in the audience, clapped, tapped and danced our hearts out at Kingston Mines, a world-famous Chicago blues club. We were in the Windy City for the Chicago Blues Festival, a free three-day event with some of the best blues musicians and bands in America.

This year was particularly special because it included a centennial celebration for Muddy Waters and Willy Dixon. Both Waters and Dixon were fathers of modern Chicago blues, both were born in 1915 and were part of the “great migration” of the ’30s and ’40s when African Americans left the South and came north to find work.

Waters and Dixon helped morph the Delta blues into the Chicago blues, an electrified urban blues that influenced everyone from Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones.

History of the Chicago Blues Festival

The first Chicago Blues Festival took place on August 30, 1969, a ten-hour event, which Muddy Waters and Willy Dixon helped to create. The musicians that day included Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Lightin’ Hopkins, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, and Big Mama Thornton. The concert ended with Muddy Waters performing Got My Mojo Working.

BLUES club in Chi-town.
BLUES club in Chi-town.

Billy Branch went to that original festival, heard all the great blues artists, and decided to become a blues musician. Now, almost 55 years later, he was the frontman for the Blues Festival’s 2015 Willie Dixon Centennial Tribute (which also featured Sugar Blue and six of Dixon’s children).

The Muddy Waters Centennial Tribute which followed included Bob Margolin, John Primer, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith (drummer son of Willy “Big Eyes” Smith), harp players Paul Oscher and Jerry Portnoy, and Muddy’s sons Mud and Big Bill Morganfield.

New York Woman Ditches Rock’n Roll for The Blues

So what was a jaded New York woman (me) who grew up on rock n’ roll doing at the Chicago Blues Festival? Blame Jon Gindick’s Mississippi Harmonica Blues Delta Jam Camp (www.gindick.com).

Five years ago, by chance, I discovered this harmonica camp online and decided to go not only to learn how to play blues harp but because I’d never been to the South and had always wanted to see the cotton fields in full bloom.

I loved camp, even though the harmonica turned out to be one of the most difficult instruments imaginable. I also loved running through the cotton fields each morning in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where the camp was held. The experience turned me into a passionate blues fan (and was indirectly responsible for me meeting my husband, a life long stalker of the blues).

And that’s why we’d come to Chicago. We were staying at the Hard Rock Hotel  not only because it was an easy walk to the Festival Grounds (and we could walk through Millennium Park to get there), but also because it seemed cool to stay in a music-themed hotel. They’ll even deliver a guitar to your room, free during your stay. I don’t play guitar, but I liked the little ones embroidered on their pillowcases.

The Chicago Blues Festival

The hotel had every amenity, including a gym, but we came to Chicago for the Blues Festival and didn’t plan to spend any time in the room except to sleep. The Festival, which took place in Grant Park had five stages with live bands playing simultaneously from 11 am till evening.

The distance between bands was far enough away that you weren’t hearing all the other bands at once. The stages were close enough together (about a 5-minute walk from one to the next) so that you could easily catch two or more performances for one hour.

The booths included five foundations which are helping to keep the blues alive, and were selling T-shirts, CDs and more; there was a free recharge lounge for cellphones and other tech items, plus food for sale (Chicago hotdogs, BBQ, Thai food, chocolate, and beer and soft drinks).

Jimmy Johnson at BLUES.
Jimmy Johnson at BLUES.

What Not to Leave Home Without

What I learned was that Chicago weather can change with a finger snap. We’d brought rain-gear, but it wasn’t enough, and we ended up buying plastic ponchos at a souvenir shop outside the park. The locals all had camp chairs, but we were happy either sitting on the ground or finding seats at the big stage. I did remember to bring a hat, sunglasses, and suntan lotion, all of which I needed.

I hadn’t been in Chicago in over 20 years, and besides the Festival, we planned to go to the Art Institute, Navy Pier, and rent bikes to ride along the Magnificent Mile; but we never got around to doing anything because the music was so excellent we couldn’t bear to leave. And each night, when the Festival finished, we wanted to hit the blues clubs which stay open till 4am (and sometimes even till 5am).

The first night we went to Kingston Mines, around since 1968, and voted “best entertainment” of the 100 Hot Nightclubs in the USA. When we arrived, Billy Branch, frontman for Sons of Blues, was firing out harmonica quadruplets faster than a machine gun.

We squeezed into seats at along mess hall-type table, but a sign to the side of the stage said DANCE ALOUD, so we jumped up and did exactly that. Kingston Mines has two rooms for live music, and after the set ended in our room, we all moved into the second room to hear Eddie Shaw (who used to play for Howlin’ Wolf) and his band, the Wolfgang. www.kingstonmines.com

B.L.U.E.S.

Almost directly across the street from Kingston Mines is B.L.U.E.S, a small, chill, dim and intimate club. Most people sit on barstools or stand, but the place is so little that no matter where you are, you’re close to the music. The night we were there, blues guitarist Jimmy Johnson (who cut his teeth with Otis Rush, Freddie King and Magic Sam) was dishing out the blues. Definitely worth a visit.

Chicago at night.
Chicago at night.

With only three nights in Chicago, we couldn’t hit every blues club in town, but some locals (including City of Chicago historian Tim Samuelson, who knows everything about Chicago and the blues) had excellent recommendations.

Here’s my suggestion: first, pencil in to attend the Chicago Blues Festival – the largest free blues festival in the world with non-stop free music on multiple stages for three days. But if you’re jonesing for the blues and can’t wait till next year’s Festival, catch a plane to Chicago and hit the clubs for live blues. Here are more clubs worth checking out:

Rosa’s Blues Lounge This club, opened in 1984 and which has been called a blues mecca for true believers, is family owned and operated by an Italian immigrant who came to Chicago after meeting Jr. Wells and Buddy Guy in Milan, and opened Rosa’s (named after his mother, who followed him to America to help). You’ll find here both traditional legends and Chicago modernists. One thing is for sure: this year, Rosa’s is celebrating its 30th anniversary and the place is jumping.

Buddy Guys Legends Club – On the upscale side (the locals admit that the food and drink prices are much more than the other clubs), Legends, owned by the legendary Buddy Guy, offers music at night and serves up Louisiana-style Cajun soul food. The walls are lined with Buddy Guy mementos including his Grammy Awards and a photo of him with Stevie Ray Vaughan. The music is great, but the vibe and prices strikes some as too touristy.

Blue Chicago– Located in the heart of the city, this authentic friendly little club has been around since 1985 has showcased such legends as Koko Taylor, Magic Slim, Eddie Shaw, and more. Like all the blues clubs, it fills up quickly, so get there early if you want a seat. The place has been called somewhat run down and it’s cash only, but that only adds to the blues joint atmosphere.

Smoke DaddyBBQ Opened since 1994, Smoke Daddy Rhythm and Blues offers BBQ and free live music seven nights a week. Some claim its barbeque is lip-smacking, the best in Chicago. Others claim it’s mediocre at best. But what everyone agrees on is that the place is warm and friendly and the blues musicians are excellent.

Keepin’ the Blues Alive

So if you’re a music lover and especially a blues lover, come to Chi-Town for the Chicago Blues Festival and anytime for the night clubs, and you’ll be helping to keep the blues alive.

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