DCASE Hosts Chicago Blues Festival Finale Review – Varied Takes on Classic Genre

Squint and you might mistake Mud Morganfield for his father, blues icon Muddy Waters. Possessing his dad’s charisma, physical appearance, and bluesy growl, Morganfield closed his set with “Got My Mojo Working,” the 1957 classic that helped cement his father’s place among blues legends. Despite the early hour and rising temperature, the crowd eagerly joined the song’s call-and-response refrain, with some rising out of their seats to dance beside the stage.

The memory of Muddy Waters was everywhere at the 34th Annual Chicago Blues Festival. Perhaps more so than any other musician, Waters’ life parallels the history of the blues. Introduced to music through church, Waters left his birthplace in the Mississippi Delta for Chicago in 1943. It was here that he – along with fellow southerners Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf – gave birth to the blues’ most recognizable subgenre, Chicago blues. It is only fitting, then, that Chicago is home to one of the world’s biggest and best blues festivals. The 34th Annual Chicago Blues Festival concluded on Sunday, June 12th with performances from artists varied in sound but similar in their reverence of the city’s blues tradition.

DCASE Showcases the Sound of Chicago Blues at its 34th Chicago Blues Festival

The day began with a set from the Mud Morganfield Band. Morganfield possesses the same skill and swagger that made his dad a legend. Donning a white fedora and bright-red button up shirt, Morganfield seemed equally at ease as breezed through a set of Chicago blues tunes. Singer and harmonica player Wallace Coleman, who we spoke with earlier this week, followed Morganfield with a similarly solid performance. “I’m an old-fashioned guy,” confessed Coleman, a sentiment that shone through in his set. Exuding the charm and confidence of a veteran bluesman, Coleman regaled the audience with stories of everyday life, romance, heartbreak, and other common blues themes. The band laid down chugging rock ‘n’ roll as Coleman bent over and swayed to the rhythm of his harmonica solos. Unlike Morganfield and his stadium-rock swagger, Coleman, sporting sunglasses and a newsy cap, transported the audience to a smoke-filled, intimate blues bar.

Harmonica player Wallace Coleman performed at Millennium Park's Front Porch Stage Photo courtesy of Wallace Coleman

Headliners at the Pritzker Pavilion Infuse the Blues Tradition with Soul, Folk, and Rock

The night’s performances at the Pritzker Pavilion began with a set from singer and guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks. Wearing all white to stay cool underneath the searing sun, Brooks strode across stage with the effortless presence of a rock star. Despite a sound which borrows heavily from soul and funk, Brooks is clearly steeped in the Chicago blues tradition, shouting out local legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and even his own father, the late Lonnie Brooks. Bearing a t-shirt with his father’s image, Brooks imbued his performance with a sentimental reverence for those that came before him. “I love Lonnie Brooks,” he cried. “Do you love Lonnie Brooks?” The crowd answered with raucous applause

Rhiannon Giddens released her most recent album, "Freedom Highway," this year Photo: John Peet

Following Brooks was a stunning set from multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens. Her music is hard to classify, drawing from folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, soul and everything in between. Giddens’ group included mandolin, acoustic guitar, piano, accordion, upright bass and tambourine, with Giddens herself on vocals, violin and banjo. Swapping instruments after nearly every song, the group breezed through fittingly varied numbers that had the audience dancing in the aisles at one moment and listening raptly at the next.

Unlike the smoky blues bar conjured up by someone like Wallace Coleman or Ronnie Baker Brooks, Giddens’ music transported listeners to a dusty Appalachian road or a town square in the Deep South. “The past is the future!” Giddens exclaimed, a belief that she elaborated upon with gorgeous and somber lyrics inspired by antebellum slave auctions and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. In “We Could Fly,” for instance, Giddens recounts a slavery-era folk tale in which a mother and daughter reclaim their ability to fly and triumphantly shake off the chains of bondage. Although her music can hardly be described as “blues,” it is indeed a continuation of the American – and particularly African-American – folk tradition from which the blues was born.

Gary Clark Jr.'s music is a contemporary take on blues rock Photo courtesy of the City of Chicago

The night concluded with a performance from guitarist and singer Gary Clark Jr. Young fans poured into the Pritzker Pavilion’s seating area as temperatures dropped and the sun dipped beneath Chicago’s glittering skyline. Swaggering onstage in sunglasses, sparkling purple tunic, and wide-brimmed black fedora, Clark stands at the cutting edge of modern blues rock. He has the soft and smoky voice of an R&B singer, the virtuosic chops of a jazz guitarist, and a small backing band that booms with the sonic density of an orchestra. Pulsing with straight 8th note grooves and funk chords, Clark’s music often clothes the standard twelve-bar blues form in complex arrangements and classic rock riffs. Despite his modern get-up and youthful fans, Clark is still a bluesman, reminding audiences that, in the words of Ronnie Baker Brooks, “the blues ain’t dead” – certainly not in Chicago.

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Photos courtesy of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, unless otherwise indicated.

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