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Chicago Blues Festival a Howlin' Success

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2007 Chicago Blues Festival
Grant Park
Chicago, Illinois
June 7-10, 2007

If a visitor from another planet had happened into Grant Park in Chicago late Sunday night June 10, heard the music pouring forth from the stage during a 97th birthday salute to the late, great Howlin' Wolf, and seen the crowd bouncing in its seats and the dancers' gyrations down front, he might have been puzzled to learn the music is called ''the blues.''
"Blues," according to Webster, is the vernacular equivalent of a melancholy mood, or depressed state of mind. But this music was exuberant, with Wolf pups Eddie Shaw (sax), Hubert Sumlin (guitar), Henry Gray (piano) and James Cotton (harmonica) taking turns leading a talented pack of sidemen on a joyous journey through familiar blues territory.
Almost as pleasurable during this fourth and final night of the 24th annual Chicago Blues Festival was the tribute to Sunnyland Slim, whose rollicking barrelhouse piano and piercing vocals brightened the Windy City's blues scene for more than 50 years. Big Time Sarah and Deitra Farr were the singers, and Barrelhouse Chuck did most of the keyboarding.
Bobby Rush's off-color routines with three scantily clad backup singer-dancers closed out the festival. It's all blues, the festival programmers said, but not to these ears.

The first three nights had their ups and downs as well. Jimmy Dawkins was the opening night star, playing with brooding intensity in front of a kicking aggregation of West Side all-stars. He followed Chicago's legendary "Queen of the Blues,'' Koko Taylor, whose act seems not to have changed much in years—the usual "I'm a Woman'' and "Let the Good Times Roll'' and "Wang Dang Doodle,'' with in-between-song shout-outs all delivered as if by rote.

An afternoon highlight was the boogie woogie piano of Albert Ammons disciple Renaud Patigny, a Belgian, who brought a second pianist, Carl Leyland, on stage for some acrobatic four-handed fourplay reminiscent of the once- renowned boogie woogie team of Albert Ammons (father of tenor sax legend Gene) and Pete Johnson.

Friday's highlight was a spectacular two-hour set staged by harmonica-playing singer Billy Branch in recognition of his 30 years leading the Sons of the Blues. The current edition and a dozen or more alumni—including a formidable four-man horn section and a parade of guitar and harmonica whizzes—demonstrated their own prowess and bore witness to Branch's stature as one of the music's foremost educators. He leads "blues in the schools'' workshops around the country. Branch & Co. paid musical tribute to recently deceased blues elders Homesick James, Henry Townsend and Robert Jr. Lockwood as well as to earlier pioneers Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Junior Wells. Preceding Branch was Johnnie Mae Dunson, 86, who rolled out in a wheelchair but whose voice remains full-bodied.

Branch's current pianist, Sumito "Ariyo'' Ariyoshi, gave a solo recital in the afternoon that showcased his gentle, yearning vocal stylings and mastery of New Orleans-infused keyboard work.

Saturday night's set by the "Soul Queen of New Orleans,'' Irma Thomas, rivaled Billy Branch's and the Wolf tribute for best of the fest honors. Thomas, whose rich, earthy voice has never sounded better, started slowly with material from her Grammy-winning post-Katrina CD, After the Rain, but caught the crowd's upbeat spirit with the by-request "Dr. Feelgood,'' in a version equally as passionate as the great Aretha Franklin's. Thomas kept the momentum with "Done Got Over'' and the exultant "Sing It,'' and finished with a medley of Crescent City classics wrapped in a package she called "Just Can't Get New Orleans Off My Mind.''

Thomas' set followed high-energy but musically pedestrian offerings by singer Nellie "Tiger'' Travis and the buoyant 80-year-old "king of the honkers," saxophonist "Big Jay'' McNeely.

The afternoon wake-up call came from a band put together to appear in an upcoming John Sayles movie about an Alabama juke joint. Mabel John, a former Raelette, is the band's singer and delivered saucy, sassy vocals in the tradition of the late Ruth Brown.


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