Summertime is a celebration of the blues. Many cities showcase their home-grown talent while others import players from all over the country. These blues festivals occur from late spring to early fall, and provide perhaps the best way to learn and deepen an appreciation of the music.
Each year the blues seems to make ever-greater inroads into American popular culture. Television commercials, movie scores, even sitcom soundtracks routinely -- if unconsciously -- clone the piercing slide guitar chords and haunting harmonica lines that have long been the fiery substance of traditional blues music. This African-American art form has been so influential on American music that ever since the very first jazz sounds in New Orleans, the first country bands in Atlanta and the first rock-and-roll combos in Memphis, blues has been a major musical ingredient.
In fact, the blues has for so long been the pepper -- if not the meat -- in the American musical stew, that one wonders how it has remained hidden while casting such enormous, fixed shadows. Mega-stars in rock-and-roll, country and jazz have always made extensive use of this music; yet, a sad majority of authentic blues masters have received their due in the larger musical marketplace only by the reflection of their musical satellites. It took The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top, for example, to make viable legends of America's only three multiple Grammy-winning black blues artists: Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Buddy Guy.
It has always been so. During the '20's and '30's, the first golden age of blues recording, the music was merchandised and segregated as "race" records; in the late '40's and '50's, as "rhythm-and-blues." For the most part, the blues recording artists had been regional stars who toured communities much like their own. The music was made for and by Black America.
Since the 1960's, however, an increasing number of white musicians, historians and fans have shown a marked interest in the sounds of blues past and present. Albums of reissued records have met with far-reaching commercial success (led by the Grammy-winning CBS box set of Robert Johnson's work), and more and more players of all colors and nationalities have strived to emulate the work of their guitar-wielding, harp-blowing heroes.
The important step has yet to be taken, however. The bluesman has always existed in black communities throughout the country -- playing the local jukejoints, picnics, fairs, Elks Halls, as well as major venues such as the Regal and Apollo theaters. And long-time blues fans who travel to the music -- to centers like Chicago and the Mississippi Delta -- have enjoyed these artists on their home turf. (These blues travelers are a serious band of cognoscenti who take this music as some take communion. It's serious business.) However, most of the active bluesmen are not able to reach the average listener. The blues festival has gone a long way to correct the situation. One trip to one of these festivals can connect you to many of the finest and most exciting blues artists in the world.
Summertime is a celebration of the blues. Many cities showcase their homegrown talent while others import players from all over the country. These blues festivals occur from late spring to early fall, and provide perhaps the best way to learn and deepen an appreciation of this music. Some festivals incorporate an educational component of lectures, movies and photographic exhibits, while others rely solely on the music.
Here is a roundup of a few of the most significant events.
* The 7th Annual RiverBlues Festival: May 21-22; Philadelphia; the Great Plaza at Penn's Landing; Free; (215) 636-1666.
Poised on the banks of the Delaware, the RiverBlues Festival presents two days of non-stop music on four stages. Saturday features Chicago blues legend Otis Rush, arguably the world's greatest blues guitarist and singer. This appearance correlates with the release of Otis' first studio recording in almost 20 years, and his first for Mercury Records. Also on Saturday is Texan Sonny Rhodes, one of the few blues steel guitar players on the scene. Also appearing are the exciting Holmes Brothers and the Robert Cray Band. Sunday's show features the great harmonicist/singer Junior Wells as well as the fabulous West Coast pianist/singer Charles Brown. Also on Sunday: Marva Wright, Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials and others. Fans of New Orleans music might inquire about the USAir Jambalaya Jam, May 28-29 at the same location.
* The 11th Annual Chicago Blues Festival: June 3-5; Grant Park, Chicago; Free; (312) 744-3370.
Mayor Richard M. Daley proudly proclaims the great city of Chicago "Blues Capital of the World"; and, indeed, since Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red began playing and recording there in the 1920's, there has existed a tradition that still resonates today -- three-quarters of a century later. Chicago is synonymous with quintessential urban blues.
The music flows from two stages during the afternoon ("The Front Porch" and "The Crossroads"), and from the main Petrillo Band Shell stage in the evenings until 10:00 p.m. Among themes and artists presented this year: "Blues in the Schools," with harp-master Billy Branch; "Sweet Home Chicago," with Melvina Rodgers, Eddie Shaw and the "Chicago Soul Revue" with Major Lance and Gene Chandler; "70th Birthday Tribute to Jimmy Rogers" with Snooky Pryor and Pinetop Perkins; "The Bessie Smith Centennial" spotlighting Linda Hopkins and Katie Webster; and a "Tribute to Bruce Kaplan" with Elder Wilson, Reverend Leon Pinson, and The Birmingham Sunlights. There are also tributes to '40's legends John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and Cow Cow Davenport in addition to a reunion of The Falcons with Eddie Floyd and featuring the singer Sir Mack Rice, composer of such standards as "Mustang Sally." Also appearing are many Chicago artists who attest to this city's pre-eminent place in the world of blues. Among them: Little Smokey Smothers, Aaron Burton, Carey Bell, L.V. Banks, Lester Davenport, John Primer, Billy Boy Arnold, Byther Smith, Barbara LeShoure, Mississippi Heat, and Chicago legends David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Sunnyland Slim. Sunday Evening's show features the "Black Top Blues A-Rama" starring Earl King, Robert Ward, Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon, followed by "Chicago's Queen of the Blues," Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine.
Needless to say, the after-festival (and year-round) blues events in Chicago are unparalleled. Many clubs routinely feature artists who regularly headline blues fests all over the world.
* The 10th Annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival: July 1-3; River Drive; Moline, Ill.; $15 special 3-day pass available before 5/31; free for those over 59 or under 15; otherwise $5 Fri., $10 Sat. or Sun.; (800)-747-7800.
On the banks of the Mississippi River, this award-winning festival formerly held in Davenport, Iowa features a band shell stage and acoustic tent stage for music and on-site workshops. After-fest blues activities are presented by area nightclubs. This year's fest proudly dedicates itself to the memory of last year's headliner, the late blues great, Albert Collins.
rTC The festival committee has literally combed all parts of the country to fill out this year's very impressive, star-studded roster. From the Mississippi Delta region come Lonnie Pitchford, John Weston, CeDell Davis and Lonnie Shields; from the East Coast: Jerry Ricks, Guitar Gabriel and John Jackson; from Louisiana and Alabama: Lazy Lester and Jerry McCain; and, from Chicago: Willie Kent and the Gents, James Cotton with Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Shaw, Billy Boy Arnold and Pinetop Perkins. Rounding out this geographical blues bonanza is West Coast giant, Charles Brown and St. Louis legends Johnnie Johnson and Oliver Sain. This program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and by the National Endowment for the Arts.
* The 3rd Annual Pocono Blues Festival: July 30-31; The Pocono Mountains of Northeast Pa.; $10 per person per day (adv) $15 at gate;$1 -- 12 and under; (717) 443-84433 or accommodations (800)-468 2442.
Resting on 175-acre Big Boulder Lake, this festival provides a beautiful setting for the best in blues. It is 2 hours north of Philadelphia, just over 3 hours from Baltimore and 2 hours from New York City. Festival director Michael Cloeren says, "Entertaining and servicing the customer comes easy to us as we own and operate two ski areas." As to his choice of artists, he goes on to say, "We try to stay away from the mega-superstars in order to give recognition to the veterans that have paid their dues over the years. Every year we bring in acts new to our festival. We will not lose our traditional focus." Past festival headliners such as Gatemouth Brown, Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes, Magic Slim, R.L. Burnside and Big Jack Johnson illustrate Mr. Cloeren's point.
There are two stages featuring continuous entertainment from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. as well as presentations of blues movies, seminars and lectures throughout each day. In addition, there is after-hours blues at four area nightclubs. The choice of artists reflects an intelligent, broad, and exciting spectrum of blues that includes Delta/Chicago/Memphis legend David "Honeyboy" Edwards (Robert Johnson's "running partner" of long ago), Mississippi's Junior Kimbrough, and Malaco recording artists Denise LaSalle and Little Johnny Taylor. Among the Sunday highlights are Chicago stalwarts Aaron Burton, Billy Boy Arnold, and Sugar Blue, along with the no-nonsense Big Bad Smitty and past Grammy and Handy Award winner, Texan Johnny "Clyde" Copeland.
* The 7th Annual Sunflower River Blues Festival: August 5-6; Clarksdale, Miss.; Free; (601) 627-2209 or (601)624-4461.
Clarksdale, Miss. sits on the Sunflower River, about 1 1/2 hours south of Memphis on famed Highway 61 -- just east of the Mississippi River. This Delta landmark city has been home to such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and Ike Turner. "This Festival is committed to promoting and perpetuating the Delta Blues in its birthplace," says John Ruske, curator of The Delta Blues Museum and Sunflower Festival co-director. "We feature the best of the contemporary delta blues, both acoustic and electric."
Last year's festival was headlined by two dynamic delta-bred artists, Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes and "Big" Jack Johnson. As last year, the music will begin on Friday after a weeklong series of dynamic educational programs consisting of book signings, workshops, lectures and seminars.
As of this writing the complete line-up has not been booked, but it does appear that last year's two festival sites, the Delta Museum and the Old Railroad Depot (across the street from where Muddy caught the train to Chicago in 1943) will again play host to the Delta's finest. If you saw the movie "Deep Blues," then you are already familiar with most of the players who are already on this year's roster: Jack Johnson, R.L. Burnside, Jack Owens and Bud Spires, Lonnie Pitchford, Junior Kimbrough and Eugene Powell (a.k.a. Sonny Boy Nelson). Juke joints and clubs like Smitty's Red Top Lounge, Red's, The Rivermont, and Margaret's Blue Diamond Lounge will offer after-festival blues (as they do year-round). Other features like Jim O'Neal's fabulous Stackhouse Records and the pioneering Delta Blues Museum are within walking distance. The magic of the Mississippi Delta ,, will be all around you. Camping is available within the city limits as well as in nearby state parks.
Two other highly-recommended festivals have not yet set their line-ups. They are: The King Biscuit Festival: Helena, Ark.; Oct. 7-8; (501) 338-9144 and The Delta Blues Festival: Greenville, Miss.; Mid-September; (601) 335-3523.
As a general rule, make your reservations as early as possible. Food and beverages as well as crafts and memorabilia are readily available, but be sure to bring plenty of suntan lotion and perhaps a blanket and folding chair. If you venture into the Mississippi Delta, bring plenty of mosquito spray! Whatever you do, try to catch some of those good old summertime blues.