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Chicago Blues Fest: Top Twelve Picks!

June 6th, 2017

With five stages featuring some six dozen acts, the Chicago Blues Festival can feel like a marathon for the uninitiated. But with the fest’s new digs in Millennium Park, even veterans skilled at navigating Grant Park may feel a little disoriented. To have the best chance of seeing artists’ shows at every stage from start to finish, and even have time for a bite now and then, Leslie Keros has put together a list of twelve don’t-miss acts spanning the spectrum from traditional blues to soul and R&B to blues rock, and all points in between.

Click here to view the map of the Blues Festival to locate all of the stages!  And don't forget to check out the Blues Calendar to find all of the after-fest activities!

Friday, June 9

Mississippi Juke Joint (North Promenade)
1:00–2:00 p.m.: Eden Brent

Mississippi native Eden Brent studied at the feet of colorful characters like Boogaloo Ames, and her shows feature some of the liveliest boogie-woogie piano and most heartfelt blues you’ll hear anywhere. Together with her distinctive voice, often playful lyrics, and entertaining stories of life on the road and off, Brent is a memorable performer.

YouTube: Eden Brent

Front Porch Stage (Harris Theater Rooftop)
4:15–5:15 p.m.: Tribute to Barrelhouse Chuck featuring Billy Flynn, Johnny Iguana, Roosevelt Purifoy, and Piano Willie O'Shawny

Barrelhouse Chuck, a disciple of Sunnyland Slim and Little Brother Montgomery, was one of the city’s champions of barrelhouse and boogie woogie piano. His passing in December at age 58 was mourned by a legion of admirers, not only blues fans but the many musicians he played with. Guitarist Billy Flynn knew and played with Chuck since the 1980s, and pianists Johnny Iguana, Roosevelt Purifoy, and Willie O’Shawny are sure to keep the 88s smoking and the stories flowing as they pay tribute this afternoon.

YouTube: Johnny Iguana

YouTube: Barrelhouse Chuck

Budweiser Crossroads Stage (South Promenade)
5:15–6:15 p.m.: Guy King

With the release of his debut album, Truth, last year, guitarist and vocalist Guy King shows his deep affinity for jazz, blues, and soul, and he blurs the boundaries effortlessly both in the studio and on stage. His live band includes notable players in jazz circles, such as tenor saxophonist Rajiv Halim, trumpeter Marques Carroll, and drummer Isaiah Spencer.

YouTube: Guy King

Jay Pritzker Pavilion
7:20–9:20 p.m.: Billy Branch & the Sons of Blues with special guests Lurrie Bell, Freddie Dixon, J.W. Williams, Carlos Johnson, Carl Weathersby, Bill McFarland and Chicago Fire Horns, and Mae Koen & the Lights

Harpist extraordinaire Billy Branch celebrates the fortieth anniversary of his band the Sons of Blues with members from the group’s early days, including original Sons Lurrie Bell and Freddie Dixon along with Carlos Johnson and J.W. Williams. The set will feature a tribute to the late James Cotton, who had been scheduled to appear with Branch at the fest. The wealth of talent on this stage alone makes it an essential show, not to mention the legacy it represents.

YouTube: Billy Branch & the original Sons of Blues


Saturday, June 10

Budweiser Crossroads Stage (South Promenade)
12:45–1:45 p.m.: Lynne Jordan & the Shivers

Best to wear your dancing shoes when you see Lynne Jordan, for it’s impossible to witness her soulful, energetic show and not be moved. Whether she’s singing Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, or Aretha Franklin, Lynne has stage presence to spare, thanks to her theatrical training, and she mixes blues, soul, jazz, and R&B into an exhilarating blend that will keep a bounce in your step and a smile on your face.

YouTube: Lynne Jordan & the Shivers

Front Porch Stage (Harris Theater Rooftop)
2:45–3:45 p.m.: Jimmy Johnson Band

Jimmy Johnson received his first guitar from Billy Boy Arnold and never looked back. He spent his formative years gigging with Magic Sam and Freddie King, and later played with Jimmy Dawkins and toured with Otis Rush before going out on his own. His sweet voice and yearning guitar are ageless, and at 88 years young he continues to play the clubs regularly.

YouTube: Jimmy Johnson

Blues Village Stage (Wrigley Square, Michigan and Randolph)
5:00 p.m.: Mike Ledbetter Band

Vocalist Mike Ledbetter wowed the crowd during the all-star Otis Rush tribute at the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival. Formerly of the Nick Moss band, Ledbetter returns to the fest this year fronting his own group.

YouTube: Mike Ledbetter

Jay Pritzker Pavilion
8:15–9:30 p.m.: William Bell

Stax soul star William Bell may be best remembered for his 1961 classic, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” but the Grammy for his 2016 release This Is Where I Live has thrust the singer back into the national spotlight. Bell’s voice is as fresh and compelling as ever, and the composer of “Born Under a Bad Sign” has songwriting chops that are still sharp too.

YouTube: William Bell


Sunday, June 11

Front Porch Stage (Harris Theater Rooftop)
2:45–3:45 p.m.: Chi-Town Harp Showcase featuring Omar Coleman, Russ Green, and Lamont Harris

It’s rare to have more than one harmonica player onstage, but for this outing, three of Chicago’s journeyman harpists will try to outdo one another at the Front Porch. This will be a treat for serious lovers of the harmonica and could be a draw for fellow participants of the Midwest Harmonica Workshop, also taking place in the city this weekend.

YouTube: Omar Coleman

YouTube: Russ Green

YouTube: Lamont Harris

Mississippi Juke Joint (North Promenade)
4:00–5:00 p.m.: Denise LaSalle

The best singers are storytellers, and no one seasons a tale with as much spice as Denise LaSalle. Originally from Mississippi, LaSalle moved to Chicago in her youth, where she joined a gospel group and wrote songs that she offered to others to perform. She recorded a handful of hits in the ’70s, but it was a string of successful albums beginning in the ’80s that would establish her reputation as a riveting if racy singer and songwriter. LaSalle has maintained a devoted following ever since, and she is one singer who owns the stage from the moment she walks on.

YouTube: Denise LaSalle

Blues Village Stage (Wrigley Square, Michigan and Randolph)
5:00 p.m.: Shoji Naito & the New Cool Old School

Shoji Naito has been a regular member of Eddy Clearwater’s band and Morry Sochat and the Special 20s for more than a decade. Last year, the guitarist–bassist–harmonica player released his debut album as a leader, New Cool Old School, backed by an impressive array of local talent. This is a rare chance to see him leading his own group.

YouTube: Shoji Naito

Jay Pritzker Pavilion
7:40–9:30 p.m.: Gary Clark Jr.

Texas guitarist Gary Clark Jr. has been turning heads ever since his appearance at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, earning comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Although his style tends toward blues rock, Clark has a compelling delivery of and deep appreciation for traditional blues, and he is one of the few new artists that convincingly bridge the past, present, and future of the music.

YouTube: Gary Clark Jr. electric

YouTube: Gary Clark Jr. acoustic