By Mark Guarino
A survey of European tourists who trek here each June will prove, yet again, that blues music is Chicago’s most famous cultural export.
Yet the relationship between blues culture and city officials is historically an awkward and sometimes ugly one, starting with the redlining of the South Side in the 1930’s to the recent relocation to the subsequent cultural decimation of the historic Maxwell Street market.
The annual city blues festival, which ended Sunday, is meant to celebrate Chicago’s blues heritage but traces of its adversarial history remain. On Saturday, under a tent stage where 83-year-old guitarist T-Model Ford performed with his 10-year-old grandson-drummer, police stormed into the crowd and ordered them to move four feet back, then subsequently stood in front of the stage, blocking views of the seated performer and acting in a manner best described as thuggish and disrespectful. Police Commander Kevin Ryan blamed unspecified crowd control issues despite there being none to warrant such extremity. “It may have looked over the top … but sometimes appearances are not what they are,” he said.
Despite its feel-good face, the blues remains just as complicated. The four-day free festival, in its 25th year, offered opportunities to activate both hips and minds. On the same weekend that featured an energized big band tribute to jump blues icon Louis Jordan, folk blues musician Otis Taylor led a workshop discussion linking the banjo to its West African roots and showed how Celtic music is a close cousin. He later played a set that sounded like a spooky amalgam of both, set to a droning, trance-like beat.
The festival is at its best when it hands headliner slots at the Petrillo Music Shell to unsung heroes from decades earlier. This included Texas singer-guitarist Barbara Lynn whose R&B hits from the early 1960’s failed to sound dusty Saturday as revamped by her big band, packed with horns. On Thursday, Sugar Pie DeSanto, best known for her 1960 hit “I Want to Know” and her association with James Brown, sang churchly, organ-drenched soul music with a growl while defying her age (72) with well-placed gyrations topped by a single somersault. On the same bill that night was Cicero Blake, an early Chicago soul singer now a Maywood park district commissioner, who sang with suave assurance highlighted by falsettos.
Chicago luminaries dominated Friday in a single performance led by Eddy Clearwater in a revue of top vocalists and guitarists — Lonnie and Ronnie Brooks, Otis Clay, Jimmy Johnson — that featured the city’s time-honed brand of ebullient, crowd-pleasing blues. In a later set, Koko Taylor complimented her band’s heavy riffs with a voice, although weary in spots, proved just as brawny.
The blues festival fails when it insists on looking backward more than it does forward. Once at the forefront of the new crop of blues players, guitarist Johnny Winter, in a performance reuniting him with harp player James Cotton, appeared frail, singing in a light voice. However his body, rock steady while seated, did not tell the full story as his fingers demanded notes at whiplash speed, ending with maddening fast version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Cedric Burnside, the drummer-singer grandson of Mississippi hill country icon R.L. Burnside, was the freshest face. On Saturday afternoon he and guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm played heavy on the groove, with repetitions that invoked hip-hop. The duo gave hope renewal for the blues remain, however difficult it may still be in Chicago.