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Chicago Blues Fest: The Top Picks!

June 4th, 2018

written by Leslie Keros

Now in its second year at Millennium Park, the Chicago Blues Festival is hosting more than one hundred musicians playing on five outdoor stages. 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, check out this list of don’t-miss acts spanning the spectrum from traditional blues to soul and R&B, and all points in between.

And don't forget to check out the Blues Calendar to find all of the after-fest activities!

Friday, June 8

Visit Mississippi Juke Joint (North Chase Promenade)
11:15 a.m. Panel discussion with Delmark Records founder Bob Koester, blues historian and producer Dick Shurman, and Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer
This is a one-time opportunity to get the inside story on the record label that helped define Chicago blues, as told by the owner and by veteran curators of the scene. Bruce Iglauer got his start with Bob Koester before launching Alligator in 1971, and Dick Shurman has produced award-winning albums for both Delmark and Alligator.

Rooftop Lounge (Harris Theater Rooftop Terrace)
12:15 p.m. Oscar Wilson and Joel Paterson
Singer Oscar Wilson and guitarist Joel Paterson have been performing together for more than a decade, both as members of the Cash Box Kings and doing their own thing. They seem to get better and better with time. This is old-school blues at its most winning.

Oscar Wilson and Joel Paterson video

Crossroads Stage (South Chase Promenade)
1:30 p.m. Rockwell Avenue Blues Band
Exponents of traditional Chicago blues, the Rockwell Avenue Blues Band is a collective of blues veterans who have logged countless hours on stage and on the road. Guitarist Steve Freund, harpist Tad Robinson, pianist Ken Saydak, bassist Harlan Terson, and drummer Marty Binder spent their musically formative years playing the blues in Chicago, and last winter they gathered at Delmark’s studios—on North Rockwell Avenue—to record their first album, Back to Chicago.

Rockwell Avenue Blues Band video

Dave Specter2:45 p.m. Dave Specter
Dave Specter is one guitarist who proves that you don’t have to be flashy to be interesting. Here’s a good chance to see him play his own compositions—blues tinged with Crescent City funk, West Coast jazz, and West Side soul. Later tonight he’ll share the stage with Jimmy Johnson to honor the incomparable Magic Sam.

Dave Specter video

Guy KingFront Porch Stage (Wrigley Square)
4 p.m. Guy King solo
Guy King is known for his Little Big Band gigs, complete with horn section and backup singers, but he can be just as riveting as a solo performer. King’s broad repertoire draws on Robert Johnson, Ray Charles, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and B. B. King as well as his own highly melodic tunes, always delivered with a soulful voice and tasteful guitar.

Guy King video

Giles CoreyJay Pritzker Pavilion
6:30 p.m. Mississippi Heat with Billy Flynn and Giles Corey
Founded by harpist Pierre Lacocque, this blues combo pays tribute to Delmark with an expanded lineup of past and current members, including vocalists Inetta Visor and Carla Denise Stinson and guitarists Billy Flynn and Giles Corey. Mississippi Heat’s catchy songs and energetic groove will get you dancing in no time.

Mississippi Heat with Inetta Visor video

7:30 p.m. Tribute to those who came before and Bob Koester
On the 65th anniversary of Delmark Records, the label’s rich legacy along with that of its founder, Bob Koester, will be celebrated by a revue featuring dozens of artists on its roster. Twelve tributes are planned, among them Jimmy Burns saluting Big Joe Williams; Ken Saydak paying homage to Roosevelt Sykes; Lil’ Ed and Dave Weld honoring Lil’ Ed’s uncle, J. B. Hutto; Jimmy Johnson and Dave Specter celebrating Magic Sam; Omar Coleman remembering Junior Wells; and Lurrie and Steve Bell honoring their father, Carey. It’s an impressive array of musicians acknowledging their debt to the men and women—and the storied record label—who shaped Chicago blues.

Jimmy Burns video

Lil' Ed and Dave Weld video

Jimmy Johnson and Dave Specter video

Omar Coleman video

Lurrie Bell and the Bell Dynasty video


Saturday, June 9

Crossroads Stage (South Chase Promenade)
1:30 p.m. Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings: Tribute to Gene Barge
Saxophonist Gene “Daddy G” Barge has been writing, arranging, and producing blues, R&B, and gospel since the 1950s, doing session work with everyone from Little Milton, Etta James, Koko Taylor, and Buddy Guy to Gary U.S. Bonds. The soulful, swinging tenorman has been an esteemed member of the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings since the 1990s.

Gene Barge video

Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings video

Front Porch Stage (Wrigley Square)
2:45 p.m. Eric Noden & Joe Filisko
Guitarist Eric Noden and harpist Joe Filisko are masters of their instruments and clever songwriters too. Noden’s fingerpicking style and plaintive vocals beautifully complement Filisko’s melodic and percussive harmonica. This is a tight duo that’s sure to please fans of acoustic blues and roots music.

Eric Noden and Joe Filisko video

Eddie Cotton JrVisit Mississippi Juke Joint (North Chase Promenade)
3 p.m. Eddie Cotton Jr.
Jackson, Mississippi, native Eddie Cotton (no relation to James Cotton) has a smooth, engaging voice to go with his passionate but restrained guitar, producing a contemporary take on the blues that has depth. A minister’s son, his sound mixes the funkiness of Bobby Rush with the yearning quality of B. B. King.

Eddie Cotton Jr. video

Jay Pritzker Pavilion
6:45 p.m. Willie Clayton
Soul blues singer and songwriter Willie Clayton has recorded more than two dozen albums over his four-decade career, and his sweet voice and Delta roots remain as strong as ever. Bring your dancing shoes.

Willie Clayton video

Billy Branch8 p.m. Tribute to Little Walter with Billy Branch, Corky Siegel, Rick Estrin, Sugar Blue, Magic Dick, and the Sons of Blues featuring Billy Flynn and Sam Lay
The harpists gathering on this stage offer different styles and approaches—all of which goes to show the enduring legacy of the king of amplified blues harmonica. Expect a lot of showmanship but also some virtuosic playing.

Billy Branch video

Rick Estrin video

Sugar Blue video

Corky Siegel video

Magic Dick video

Front Porch Stage (Wrigley Square)
If you want to avoid the crowds at Pritzker, there are some good acts playing elsewhere Friday evening:

6:45 p.m. Chicago Wind featuring Deitra Farr and Matthew Skoller
Spirited traditional Chicago blues is what you can expect, delivered by a group of pros fronted by vocalist Deitra Farr and harpist Matthew Skoller (whose song “Chicago Wind” inspired the band’s name). The players have been around the scene a long time, and their tight sound and solid groove keep things swinging.

Chicago Wind video

Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne8 p.m. Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne
Vancouver resident Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne perhaps should be called “Boogie Woogie Boss,” as you’ll discover if you get a chance to hear him. His style draws on a wide variety of influences, from jump blues and early jazz to Latin music and R&B, producing a rhythmically rich brand of boogie woogie that makes it hard to sit still.

Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne video


Sunday, June 10

Front Porch Stage (Wrigley Square)
11 a.m. Erwin Helfer
The acknowledged master of boogie-woogie and blues piano in Chicago, Erwin Helfer will make you glad you woke up early to get to the fest. Helfer’s signature style sound combines the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of jazz with the soul of blues and the fun of boogie-woogie. Get ready for piano blues in all its stomping, striding, swinging glory.

Erwin Helfer video

12:15 p.m. Cash Box Kings
Purveyors of Delta and postwar Chicago blues, this band is anchored by harpist and arranger Joe Nosek and vocalist Oscar Wilson, along with guitar wizard Joel Paterson.

Cash Box Kings video

Visit Mississippi Juke Joint (North Chase Promenade)
1:45 p.m. Johnny Rawls

Johnny Rawls’ brand of Texas soul blues is the kind that’s best enjoyed live. The singer, guitarist, and songwriter backed Z. Z. Hill while still a teenager and later joined O. V. Wright’s band. He’s since released a steady stream of more than a dozen albums under his own name.

Johnny Rawls video

Crossroads Stage (South Chase Promenade)
4 p.m. Joe Louis Walker
Joe Louis Walker has offered a fresh, exciting, and original blues sound ever since he struck out on his own in the 1980s. Few contemporary blues musicians can match his depth of feeling, whether he’s playing solo or backed by a full horn section. The tone of his guitar and the timbre of his voice are instantly recognizable.

Joe Louis Walker video

Kenny NealJay Pritzker Pavilion
6:45 p.m. Kenny Neal
This second-generation bayou bluesman expertly blends gritty vocals with searing guitarwork, always delivered with a smile on his face and a bounce in his step. On his latest album, Bloodline, Kenny Neal salutes his elders, both musical ones such as B. B. King and familial ones such as his grandmother, whose adages he likes to quote onstage (“Don’t let your mouth override your tongue; think twice, but speak once”). Neal is a great entertainer who seems to be having the best time of anyone in the room.

Kenny Neal video

Mavis Staples8 p.m. Mavis Staples
Singing from the heart is advice that Mavis Staples learned early from her father, Pops, whom she performed with for fifty years before his passing in 2000. Mavis’s most recent album, If All I Was Was Black, is filled with songs of protest and hope, a combination that the Chicago-born singer has embraced since the 1960s, when she and her family gained fame as the Staples Singers. These days, the 78-year-old storyteller continues to hold the torch high, showing no interest in slowing down or taking it easy. “Í’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to say,” she recently told an interviewer, “and that ain’t gonna happen.”

Mavis Staples video