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The future of the blues is in good hands, aficionados say, pointing to some of the young performers who won featured spots at the world's biggest free blues festival in Chicago May 30-June 2. Granted, Shemekia Copeland, the Saturday night headliner, is an enormous talent, with a booming yet sweet-toned voice, a winning onstage manner, and a stable of songwriters providing her with fresh material so she seldom draws on the familiar laments so prevalent in many artists' repertoires. Also in her 20s is Nellie Tiger Travis, an opening night eye-opener, a sultry, slinky songstress who seems destined to make a splash beyond her Chicago hometown. Even the North Mississippi All-Stars, a blues rock trio expanded to five pieces for their festival performance, are getting this music out to younger fans, some of whom will open their ears up for the more authentic blues that predominated at Blues Fest 2002.
Which brings me to my main point: As great as it is to see younger generations taking up this music, the real deal performers are the oldtimers who've lived through times that would give anyone the blues, honing their craft all the while.
Take Bo Diddley, whose reunion with several bandmates from his early-1950s heyday was the best set of the four-day festival. Diddley achieved near-mythic status back in those days as a rock and roll originator, but was seldom played on the radio, so he made few hit records and hasn't been heard from much since. At 73, he remains a hypnotic player and entertaining singer, and the wall of sound he and three other guitarists built was deep-down satisfying. His send-up of rap and especially his duet with Shirley Dixon, daughter of Willie, were funny and funky.
Hey, Bo Diddley: You are The Man!
Nearly as rewarding was the Muddy Waters alumni band, with such stalwarts as Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Luther "Guitar" Johnson, Carey Bell and John Primer dusting off old hits like "Got My Mojo Working" and "She's Nineteen Years Old." Perkins, nearing 89, remains a master of blue and boogie piano and a captivating singer.
Cotton's own current band, with Darrell Nulisch handling the vocal chores that Cotton relinquished after illness reduced his voice to a raspy whisper, bridged the gap nicely between the two reunion sets.
The new Jelly Roll Kings offered up more blasts from the past, recreating the sound of Delta juke joint music of the 1960s. Drummer Sam Carr is the lone survivor of the original trio, and hooked up with a pair of masterful vocalists, Big Jack Johnson and John Weston, for this date.
Cold weather drove me out of Grant Park before the festival ended Sunday night, but not before I heard another legendary guitar slinger from Chicago's West Side, Jimmy Dawkins, who teamed up with saxophonist Eddie Shaw and a half-dozen others for another invigorating hour of this potent music.
The blues festival has grown to five stages in all, with music starting at noon each day and continuing till 9:30 p.m. ... a cutoff designed to get listeners out to the city's legion of blues clubs. We visited Hothouse in the South Loop for divas Big Time Sarah and Zora Young; Andy's, where Katherine Davis reigned over a rotating cast of players and guest singers; and three clubs on the South Side, Lee's Unleaded, Linda's Place and Imla Lounge, stops on the annual bus tour for blues fanatics run by Earwig Records founder Michael Frank.