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The 2006 Chicago Blues Festival had plenty going for ita galaxy of great local stars, several guests from the New Orleans diaspora and other blues outposts, a half-dozen stages with music from noon till 10 p.m., the usual array of food and drink vendors and assorted stands selling everything from souvenirs and T-shirts to air travel and cell phone plans. They had everything covered but the weather, which was cloudy, sometimes drizzly, and unseasonably cool for early June. This held down crowd sizes, especially at night when the wind whistled in off Lake Michigan. But the blues is all about finding joy in life despite the suffering we endure, so maybe being cold and occasionally wet was nature's way of setting the stage properly. Some highlights:
The Siegel-Schwall band has played on and offmostly offfor 40 years, starting in Chicago. It's got a new album out, "Flash Forward," and its mantra is that music should be fun. The band kicked off with Slim Harpo's "King Bee." Keyboardist-harmonica player Corey Siegel sang it slyly, prowling about the stage like a panther. "Hey, Leviticus" poked fun at right wing religious zealotry, and guitarist Jim Schwall's "Underqualified Blues" skewered President Bush. A sample lyric: "I'm just a mental featherweight; I guess I'll just be head of state." Both tunes were in the quartet's trademark country blues vein.
Then, on came guest vocalist Marcy Levy, with a voice that soared unerringly into the stratosphere, a rocket that lit up the night sky over Grant Park. This woman can wail! Why can't her records be found via an Internet search?
Eddie Bo, one of the long line of New Orleans pianists and singers springing out of the Professor Longhair tradition, kept a huge crowd on its feet for a 90-minute afternoon set that resembled a Crescent City jukebox hit parade. Bo, an 80-year-old who's lost a home to fire and been victimized by Katrina, is irrepressibly upbeat, the joy he exudes performing infectious to all within earshot.
Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women, have been chronicling the foibles of mankindnot womankind, mind yousince at least 1990. They keep coming up with fresh material, sassy and saucy, while also reinvigorating the music of pioneers like Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie and Alberta Hunter.
"Silver Beaver" is guitarist-singer Gaye Abedegnola's sly salute to the many ways the animal kingdom has served as surrogates for things you can't sing on the radio. Mississippi bullfrogs, black snakes, honeybees and other critters populate the clever lyrics.
The trio's perfect diction means audiences have no trouble discerning just what outrages men have committed now. Or, by contrast, understanding how pianist Ann Rabson's kind and considerate man "makes it hard for me to sing the blues."
Saffire's "Drown in My Own Tears" was one of several tributes to the late Ray Charles soulfully rendered at this festival.
Another Orleanian, pianist and bullhorn-voiced Henry Butler, was all over Grant Park, playing in tandem with guitarist Vasti Jackson (whose "I Turned on My Computer, And It Turned on Me" winning best original title); fronting a larger group on the main stage in the Petrillo Bandshell; doing a guest shot with Elvin Bishop's band on the rollicking "Got to Be New Orleans." One night, he was the warmup act at the misnamed House of Blues, which judging by the month's bookings is just another big rock club.
Elvin Bishop also double dipped in Chicago. One afternoon, he picked, sang and bantered with his mentor of a half-century ago, Smokey Smothers. Then the slide guitar veteran was at Petrillo with his exuberant sextet, whose trombone and accordion gave it a brass band-meets-country sound. Bishop spiced up his "My Dog" from his new CD to explain that his dog won't chase cats, cars or mailmenjust women. There's that animal thing again. The slow but relentless "Little Brown Bird" was riveting.
Henry Gray was another Louisiana pianist on hand, but his driving boogie-woogie infused playing was more Chicago than New Orleans. He and his quintet drew from the blues and r&b songbook, with nods to Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Little Richard and Gray's former boss Howlin' Wolf along the way.
Night time is the right time to explore other Chicago venues. We ventured to the West Side to see the new Chicago Blues Museum, with thousands of artifacts from the heyday of black music clubs, record labels and radio stations. There's a mini-theater playing blues videos and some TVs with vintage performances. It's beautifully laid out in a vast warehouse loft off South 35th Street, and worth a visit. Just don't expect to get a cab ride back downtown after dark.
Little Arthur Duncan, Taildragger and Jimmy Burns, blues shouters all, roared at Sunday night's Delmark Records showcase at Buddy Guy's Legends. Jimmy Dawkins was the headliner, but at midnight, after five hours of high-volume music, he still hadn't come on and my eardrums were telling me, enough, enough.