The month of May produced a number of blues highlights and accolades that deserve recognition. The 34th Blues Awards in Memphis presented posthumous awards to Michael “Iron Man” Burks for Album of The Year and Contemporary Blues Album for Show Of Strength (Alligator) and Magic Slim garnered the Traditional Blues Male Artist award. Although both artists earned trophies prior to passing, the appreciation pouring in now that they’re gone is bittersweet. It’s a clear reminder to support and honor our blues artists while they’re still with us.
On that note, it was great to see Curtis Salgado grab three awards: B.B. King Entertainer of The Year, Soul Blues Album for Soul Shot (Alligator), and Soul Blues Male Artist. Ruthie Foster and Irma Thomas also won much-deserved awards (the Koko Taylor Award for Traditional Blues – Female and Soul Blues Female Artist, respectively).
May also witnessed Joe Louis Walker‘s induction into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis as well as musicians with Chicago blues roots: Otis Clay, Earl Hooker, Little Brother Montgomery, and Jody Williams. First Lady Michelle Obama presented the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss., with the 2013 National Medal for Museum and Library Service in a prestigious White House ceremony. The medal is the nation’s highest honor conferred on museums and libraries for service to the community.
The 2013 Chicago Blues Fest lineup provides even more reasons to celebrate. This year’s performers offer a diverse array of blues flavors, from New Orleans soul to funk-filled riffs. This year’s fest takes on an interesting theme. The performers are arranged to illustrate the Great Migration from the South, when African-Americans moved from the southern region in great numbers to find opportunity in the North during the 1900s through the ’50s, taking their indigenous blues music with them. The journey up the Mississippi River starts in New Orleans and Mississippi before hitting Memphis and St. Louis, and ending in Chicago where the genre transformed into an electrified rhythm that captured the world’s attention.
Kicking off with New Orleans is fitting, considering the musical connection that Louisiana holds with neighboring Mississippi. The state’s absorbtion of blues lead to the creation of hybrids like zydeco and soul blues, which is perfected in the music of Irma Thomas. Headlining the Petrillo Music Shell on June 7, Thomas’ husky, bourbon vocals are a must-see for blues fans.
Thomas started singing as a teen in her church choir and recorded her sassy debut, “(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don’t Mess With My Man,” by the age of 18. The rollicking tune became a blues classic, with Koko Taylor putting her own spin on it years later. Thomas’ textured singing reflects New Orleans’ jazz and blues heritage with a touch of swamp-water edge. She has been the unrivaled Soul Queen of New Orleans since she started her career 50 years ago. She’ll likely roll out her early hits like the upbeat, Aaron Neville-penned “Hitting On Nothing” and the classic “Time Is On My Side,” which the Rolling Stones copied note-for-note. Also expect more recent offerings like the jazzy rendition of the Louis Jordan standard, “Early In The Morning,” and her stunning take on the blues spiritual, “Another Man Done Gone.”
Funky soul-blues master Bobby Rush represents the next stop on the journey: Mississippi. Technically, Rush can represent Louisiana – where he was born, Chicago – where he was raised, and Mississippi – where he eventually relocated. His soulful sound echoes with all these blues musical styles. Best known for raunchy hits like “Chickenheads” and “Bowlegged Woman,” Rush mixes blues with soul and funk, dubbing it “folk funk.” His noteworthy live show usually features flamboyant costume changes and rump-shaking “snake dancers,” making this singer-songwriter a multi-layered blues highlight.
Although he’s a hallmark of classic Chicago soul blues, Otis Clay represents Memphis on the Blues Fest map for the all-day festivities on June 8. His ’70s-era Memphis recordings conjure up a memorable brew of blues, gospel, and soul that explodes during his live performances. His signature tune, “Trying To Live My Life Without You,” later covered by Bob Seger, percolates with a deep-fried blend of blues rhythm and soul delivery. Clay’s legendary emotive shows remain in the memory long after they’re over. St. Louis’ Uvee Hayes joins him.
The blues trail appropriately concludes in Chicago, where a cavalcade of local talent performs on June 9 in a best-of showcase. Two Chicago blues mainstays named Johnson round out the lineup: Diva Shirley Johnson opens with her sinewy, big-voiced blues chops and Jimmy Johnson performs a set of guitar licks that have graced many classic soul-blues albums. The day ends with a pivotal “Old School/New Millennium” finale that shouldn’t be missed. Tracing the musical connection between classic and contemporary Chicago blues, harp master James Cotton pairs with Demetria Taylor; Chicago blues guitar hero John Primer joins Matthew Skoller; harp legend Billy Branch collaborates with Billy Flynn; blues icon Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater plays with Johnny Iguana; rockin’ blues mainstay Lil’ Ed performs with Felton Crewes; and Chicago blues queen Deitra Farr blends her vocal chops with Kenny “Beedyeyes” Smith.
In addition to the weekend’s headliners, other fest highlights include a tribute to Magic Slim and a centennial celebration of Pinetop Perkins. Other standout performers: Shemekia Copeland, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Fruteland Jackson, Peaches Staten, Larry McCray, Graná Louise, Toronzo Cannon, Nellie “Tiger” Travis, and Fernando Jackson and his outstanding blues kids.
The 30th Annual Chicago Blues Festival opens in Millennium Park on June 6 and runs through June 9 in Grant Park.
— Rosalind Cummings-Yeates