Monday, September 28, 2009

Chicago Blues: What happened at 2009 Chicago Blues Fest?

The first day was predicted to have scattered thunder showers. Instead we got sunshine 68 degrees and blues thunder. My “Hey Let’s go hear some blues” Buddy Jim and I headed down the highway 57 at about 10:00 am. It was quite cold “early in the morning” as they say. The traffic was extremely heavy for a Friday mid morning. We made a quick diversion to a side road and pulled into the parking garage about 40 minutes after our departure.

The parking was $25.00. The garage was within walking distance of the Fest. Security at the gate was rather laid back. The usual items were banned; Alcoholic beverages, tents, canopies, explosives, guns and knives. The guns and knives rule is probably more for the blues artist than the fans. You laugh, I’ve seen more guns over the years playing the blues then I did in the US Navy. Just joking folks or am I.

First stop was the Maxwell Street Reunion Stage. No stage just an old bus and some guys playing their version of the blues. The rhythm guitar player of this band occasionally plays with L V Banks and uses the moniker Ice Mike. I have seen him play on numerous occasions at the world famous Checkerboard lounge. He is a very accomplished sideman. The other guitar player is a Chicago Picker that has been beating around town for a long time. His name is Eric. Some of you know him and some of you don’t. I have heard about him for years now, but this is the first time I have seen him. He is a great player. I guess he is into the rock world more than blues. I don’t really know much about him, but today he is A.O.K. in my book, after all playing the blues sets him way above the rest of the herd that does not. The drummers name was Harvey whom I had talked with on numerous occasions and he is a very solid kicker. Our conversation steered us to the cats that we have played with and Smilin Bobby’s name came up. Harvey told me he was just talking with him and that he is at a different stage down the road. So off I went to hear one of the few West side blues men left and I am proud to say my blues mentor.

Some of you have read in my previous posts about how I met Smilin Bobby. Bobby truly is one of the greats. He has not received the recognition that he deserves. During one song he spotted me in the audience and gave me one of those head nods and wide grins that earned him his nickname, great guy and a great artist. After the set Bob climbed down the steps and was mobbed. One of those was Hans owner of Wolf Records. He told me Bob's CD is coming out in August so watch for it. Bobby and I have played in the dumpiest clubs that the city has and we enjoyed every minute of it, especially the fifths of whiskey we went through while playing. Those days are over my friends. I have not touched a drop in over ten years now. Occasionally while playing the aforementioned we received kudos in the form of a slap on the back or a high–five. This time Bob got the recognition he deserves and has earned. There were at least 75 people trying to talk to Bob all at once. He could not sell CD’s fast enough. Most of the CD”s that these struggling artists have for sale, are copied from a copy of a copy. That’s OK because there is a good chance that the artist will take the time to sign each and every one of them. The one on one time a fan spends with that artist is worth way more money than the 15 or 20 bucks they shell out. A great number of those fans came into to Chicago just for the blues fest. I was not going to take up any of the little precious time they have with Bob, so I just waved goodbye and he mouthed the words” call me next week”, while doing the universal hand signal for a phone.

You know it is kind of strange to know these artists on a personal level. Once you hear their stories and see them live you can see their life unfold in the grit and passion of their work. I have a different perspective of the blues than I think, a regular "Let’s go get a couple of Beers and hear the Blues" kind of fan does. Make no mistake about it, these blues men and women are just as good as the Rembrandt types or Picasso types of the world. The only difference is their chosen media. I would venture to say that 90% of the fans have no idea how difficult it is to get to the big stage at the Chicago blues festival. It is like a 55,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. You have to go through a lot of back up players/pieces before you get ones that fit. The person who coined the phrase “You gotta pay your dues to play the blues!” was so right. It is a very difficult business and some succeed and some fail. When they fail, they fail hard and when they succeed the sky is the limit. I know one blues artist that has purchased a house for each of his (8) children.

The Fest had a lot of sideshows this year including demonstrators against abortion and the war in Iraq. That’s OK and that’s what makes the USA so strong. We all have the right to freedom of speech and the right to protest, but do not ever, ever interrupt my daily dose of the blues. I was not there to hear protesters screaming about their right to say what they want when they want. Your right is assured as long as it does not infringe on mine. I personally honor and respect the troops and am in fact ex Navy. I will not comment on abortion.

We stopped for lunch at the now world famous Billy Goat Tavern Booth. We had two rib eye steak sandwiches. Very good and they hit the spot.

There was a real good vibe to the two days that I spent at the fest. I primarily went Friday to hear Smilin Bobby and Saturday to see and hear Cyrus Hayes & Lady Lee. They performed at 1:45 this afternoon CST. Cyrus Hayes & Lady Lee I have known for about 5 years and have played with them on occasion. A featured article was written about Cyrus and his blues harp ability in February 2008’s issue of “Big City Rhythm & Blues Magazine”. I have been assured a future interview for this blog about them. Up until Cyrus & Lee played this afternoon they were Chicago’s best kept secret. Well they are no longer a secret. The whole blues community knows about them now. Cyrus has assembled one hot, dynamite and in the pocket blues band. The anchor to this new group is super guitarist Sir Walter Scott. I will just state here that he has played with some of the best including the Four Tops and that’s it. I am working on an interview for later posting.

Cyrus did a version of “Sweet Home Chicago” that demonstrated exactly why he and Lady Lee belonged on the Gibson stage. Cyrus is one of the hardest working blues men in the biz. He almost flew across the stage while doing his quirky dance steps. He can blow the harp with no hands better than some harp men playing today. I have seen him at numerous gigs and there are always up and coming harp players in the audience. They follow him and study his style. Cyrus has an uncommon blues man trait, he does bird calls. That’s right bird calls. It is strange and why he does it I do not know, but the Chicago Blues Fest audience loved it.

Lady Lee took the stage and the first song she performed was the late Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle”. She did justice to the Queen of the Blues. It was a fitting tribute to Koko who was laid to rest Friday June 12, 2009. “Rest in peace Sweet Queen of the blues.”

I am going to go on record here and I believe I am the first to write this; “Lady Lee is the heir apparent to Koko Taylor”. We all loved Koko and none can take her place, but there is a void in the blues community and the only one that can fill that void is Lady Lee. She has a deep voice and a stage presence that is extraordinary. She is dynamite on stage. Her version of “You Can Have my Husband” was without comparison. If you have not heard Cyrus Hayes or Lady Lee you must, no matter how difficult it may be. Rumor has it that there may be a record contract in the works.

A guy from Italy walked up to me and wanted to know all about this blog site. I told him the regular things and in the conversation he mentioned a guy by the name of Fabio Traves. Fabio is an Italian harp player that has played with some of the greats. Check out his site.

Here are a couple of last minute thoughts. It is estimated that 600,000 and some change visit Chicago for the Blues fest. That is a lot of hot dogs. We never, ever put ketchup on hot dogs, fries yes, hot dogs no way. The City of Chicago should be given a special blues award for their efforts in supporting the blues. Hey wait a minute I am the Vice president of The Chicago Blues Music Society. I will have to bring it up at our next meeting. The other blues societies in the city could be part of that effort also. Maybe all the blues Societies should sign on to this. Comment back with your ideas Blues societies.

If you have never been to a blues Festival this is the one to see and hear. From the festival grounds you can see Lake Michigan across Lake Shore Drive. The skyline of Chicago is overwhelming and ever present. The city officials were very accommodating and polite as well as Chicago’s finest. Thank you Police everywhere. I love Chicago. Some of you will not believe this, it is know 9:35 PM. I live in a rural area just 60 miles south of Chicago. I went out to my car to retrieve my camera and man oh man the coyotes are howling tonight.
I love Chicago.