June 15, 2009
By MARK GUARINO Chicago Sun-Times
Blues before sunset isn’t natural, but on the final day of the Chicago Blues Festival, it was providence.
The 31st edition of the annual festival closed Sunday after three days of free blues music on multiple stages, all representing different factions of the musical root, from swing to soul to heavy funk.
If there’s a lesson learned from frequenting the festival year after year, it’s this: The rewards are found under sunlight, in the afternoon and at the smaller stages. That was certainly true Sunday with a line-up of Southern gentlemen who entertained the flip-flop-and-short crowd with a suit-and-tie sensibility.
The Rabbit Factory, a Chicago label, hosted the set like it does its CD compilations: With a taste for esoteric footnotes who in a better world should have become stars. On the bill was Ralph “Soul” Jackson, an Alabama soul man who scored regional hits recording in Muscle Shoals during the mid-1960’s. Backed by Wiley & the Checkmates, a seven-piece band from Oxford, Miss., Jackson was once again in the spotlight, delivering those hits in a style that complimented his crimson suit and tuxedo shirt.
Shouting, “This is the way we do it in the dirty South!” Jackson turned the lawn into a dance party. He ended his set with one of his past hits: a deep-pocket take of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” In the hot sunlight, fame became evergreen.
Harvey Scales, a funk songwriter and vocalist in the latter days of Chess Records and Stax and who penned hits for Johnnie Taylor in the era of disco-soul, followed. Dressed in a bright red suit with white sunglasses, Scales continued the party with “Love Itis,” a 40-year-plus R&B hit he later admitted came from “a more innocent time.” His performance of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” brought him to his knees, but mid-song, he admitted the foibles of being a senior: “I hurt my knee that time — but I didn’t get my pants dirty.”
Certainly this year’s side stages bettered the Sunday headliners. Fleetwood Mac co-founder Jeremy Spencer’s sleek guitar style and polished singing felt dry and academic.
He set the stage for Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, a collective of Brooklyn hipsters that is connecting with the Pitchfork demographic for retro soul that trades nuance and rhythmic sophistication for go-go-go bluster. Jones makes up for her nominal vocals with plenty of sass and comical dancing, a kind of comfort zone for fans making entry into the soul field for the first time. Her new songs were more or less extended jams for the band to vamp while Jones kept the brand active.
The blues festival was not immune to the strains of the current recession; a day was trimmed to make it a three-, not four-day, affair and the sponsors were fewer than in past years.
Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials was the only outfit to strike that note in the music: “Gonna get out of Chicago … money I’m makin’ here don’t seem to go very far,” he sang Saturday. Covering the jubilant rock of Chuck Berry and the slide guitar of Elmore James, Ed emulated the best of Chicago past while making the present hard to forget.
Mark Guarino is a free-lance writer. Visit www.mark-guarino.com.