Women dominate Chicago’s annual blues festival

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

MUSIC REVIEW | This year’s Blues Fest no boys club

By MARK GUARINO Chicago Sun Times

An old man with a guitar, harmonica and complaint about being done wrong: This is an archetype of the blues that is repeated virtually every night in every city in every club that promotes the blues.

But at the 31st edition of Chicago’s annual blues festival, the gender role was distinctively reversed. Headliners at the Petrillo Music Shell stage this year were predominantly women. And they were not just from different generations, but also from different points on the map: Shirley Johnson (Chicago), Trudy Lynn (Houston), Bettye LaVette (Detroit) and Sharon Jones (Brooklyn), the headliners each night, create an impromptu sisterhood bonded by songs that underscore how cheating and heartbreak isn’t gender specific.

Another voice added to the chorus despite not being there in person was Koko Taylor, the presiding vocalist of Chicago blues. She was put to rest Friday, the same day the festival opened its gates. The iconic singer died earlier this month, almost one year after headlining last year’s festival. Her voice and spirit became an indomitable part of this year’s fest. A temporary wall erected in her honor on Columbus Drive allowed fans to write memorials. Taylor’s portrait was displayed on stage at the Petrillo Music Shell.

To her friends, Taylor was not far away.

“She was a genuine woman, she was not a phony woman. She loved her fans,” said Marie Dixon, who runs the Blues Heaven Foundation. Dixon is the widow of Willie Dixon, the late songwriter, performer and producer responsible for launching Taylor’s career in the mid-1960’s after giving her his song, “Wang Dang Doodle” to sing.

Marie Dixon said she talked with Taylor almost every day and they regularly made seafood dinners together.

“It’s not a loss. She’ll go on like Ma Rainey, Big Bill Broonzy, Cab Calloway. She’ll never die,” said Dixon. “I’m happy I knew her as well as her immediate family.”

At Petrillo, Taylor was celebrated in spirit and song. Trudy Lynn, whose brawny voice was as expansive as her band, the horn-checkered Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings, performed in Taylor’s testimonial style. “Come to Mama” was dedicated to the late singer, who Lynn said was an inspiration. The tension Taylor created between lusty invitations and hurtful confessions never wavered; she kept the line tight and the audience rapt.

Jessi Williams, from Chicago, did not ache that bad; dressed in silver lame dress, she referenced the sunny girl groups of the 1960’s, complete with syncopated dance moves and three dancer-vocalists. To end, they collectively summoned Tina Turner’s signature dance moves on — what else? — “Proud Mary.”

Saturday’s closer was the late bloomer Bettye LaVette, who, at age 63 and in the 48th year of her career, is a genuine star whose catwalks and vocal delivery offered tenderness and thrills. She took “a senior moment” to sit in a yoga position and sing Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces.”

LaVette covered wide ground in her 70-minute set, from rock workouts to early R&B ballads from her younger years to an a capella cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” The maturity of her delivery gave the repeated singing of just one word — “please” — an encyclopedic range of interpretive hurt. Later, she slinked from one wing of the stage to the other, ending by singing while hugging the shoulder of a sign language interpreter. The moment was so unscripted and carefree everyone was at a loss for words.

Mark Guarino is a free-lance writer. Visit www.mark-guarino.com.

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