The Windy City has long served as the Blues Capital of the world. Since the 1920s, its clubs and streets have been the proving grounds for new talent and the stomping grounds for the masters. The proliferation of resident talent, much originally from the deep South, rivals any in the world.
Many of the Chicago blues clubs feature first-class acts every night of the week. Household names like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush share the limelight with obscure but talented singers and instrumentalists who might any day make their debut on local record labels such as Alligator, Delmark and Earwig -- to name three that enjoy international distribution.
Although there are still tiny clubs that rock the west and south sides of Chicago, by and large the blues can be found in the high-rent districts. Many venues have emerged on the north side, an upscale, largely residential area packed with restaurants, galleries and bars. Others light up the glamorous downtown area known as the Loop, in walking distance of the major museums, shopping areas and hotels.
The city is proud to recognize the blues as a historic part of its rich and varied cultural heritage. Every year it offers a free blues festival during the first weekend in June.
If you're in Chicago, don't miss out on a tour of the greatest live blues shows. It's inexpensive and exciting -- and it's a regular event, 365 days a year. To get an in-depth look at the calendar of blues events (as well as the jazz, classical and rock lineups), pick up a free copy of the Reader, which comes out every Thursday.
Here are some suggestions, starting from downtown, near the Loop:
Buddy Guy's Legends: 754 S. Wabash; hours: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday; cover: $4 Monday, $5 Tuesday and Wednesday, $6 Thursday, $8 and up on the weekends depending on the artist; (312) 427-0333 or (312) 427-1190; access: directly behind the Hilton Hotel and Towers, 700 S. Michigan Ave., a reasonable cab ride from anywhere in the Loop. Located near all the museums, the Art Institute, the Harold Washington Library, Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase, Grant Park, the Sears Tower, Soldier's Field, the Museum of Natural History and the Aquarium.
Legends, owned by Grammy-winning Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, is in the South Loop, close to Printers Row -- a strip known for restaurants and cafes featuring Chinese, Italian, Thai or American cuisine. Legends itself offers a selection of Cajun shrimp, barbecued ribs, chicken, burgers, desserts, greens and red beans and rice. Every Friday the club presents a free buffet and live acoustic blues (5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.) that precede the featured act.
Legends is host to a range of blues talent stretching from resident Chicago legends like Junior Wells to international jazz-blues artists Jack McDuff and Hank Crawford and visiting blues-rockers John Mayall and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Says Mr. Guy's manager Scott Cameron, "Buddy opens up the year here, and, generally when he's not on tour, there's a 99.9 percent chance that he's hanging at the club. You look around some nights, there will be Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks -- all relaxing on a night off."
Muddy Water's tour jacket, Little Brother Montgomery's handmade bow-tie, Willie Dixon's and Little Walter's 45s and 78s, Howlin' Wolf's touring contract (demanding $250), Willie "Big Eye" Smith's drumsticks -- blues memorabilia, along with pictures of blues masters, fill the walls. The large room is somewhere between a blues museum and a huge blues club cellar.
Buddy Guy opened Legends in 1989. His concept was to create a place where young blues artists in Chicago could be nurtured. He has not forgotten the days when Muddy Waters and Otis Rush would invite the young Louisianian to share their stage. That's why Monday nights are jam nights.
Blue Chicago: 736 N. Clark; 9 p.m.-2 a.m.; cover: $5 weekdays, $7 weekends, (312) 642-6261.
Blue Chicago on Clark: 536 N. Clark; same cover and hours as Blue Chicago; (312) 661-0100. Both clubs are located in the River North district in downtown Chicago -- a few blocks from Michigan Avenue and in walking distance of the Loop. They're near all the major hotels and the main shopping district and in ready access to major expressways and subways. This is the heart of Chicago's premier entertainment district that features more than 100 restaurants and clubs.
Blues lover-entrepreneur Gino Battaglia, the proprietor of both clubs, came to Chicago from Italy when he was 9 years old and fell in love with the blues. Operating two blues clubs is a dream come true.
Mr. Battaglia is a devotee of female singers. "I've always felt that the female singer has a special place in the blues," he says. "We're known for that. From the time we opened, over 95 percent of our shows have a female singer -- and we are the only clubs in Chicago that specialize in that.."
The clientele at Blue Chicago and Blue Chicago on Clark ranges in age from 21 to 90 and might be wearing jeans or evening gowns. "We get people from all over the world here," Mr. Battaglia says. "Our slogan is 'Sweet Home' [borrowed from the familiar blues anthem 'Sweet Home Chicago']. We have people that come in here and say 'I'm home.' "
Koko Taylor's Chicago Blues: 7 W. Division; 5 p.m.-4 a.m. seven nights a week (music starts at 9 p.m.); cover: $3 to $9; (312) 337-2583. A short cab ride from the Loop, Koko's is located near the River North district, in the Rush Street area among the well-known cluster of bars that has attracted young people for years. There are nine bars on that block and five more a block away. Koko's features a menu of burgers and light fare.
Opened March 2, 1995, Koko's is one of the newest blues clubs in Chicago. "The Queen of the Blues," Grammy-winner Koko Taylor, took a cue from her colleague Buddy Guy. Like Buddy, Koko would like to provide more opportunity for Chicago blues artists. She remembers the days when Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon would share their stage with her.
Alligator recording artist Lonnie Brooks calls Koko's "a blues club with a necktie" because it attracts so many out-of-towners doing the Windy City in style. Jeans and tank tops abound, too, however, as the blues in Chicago always brings out a mixed audience. This upscale venue impresses with its air of sophistication and state-of-the-art gear for sound and video. Two rooms, each with its own bar, are equipped with monitors to watch the artists during their set. Koko's Grammy and many Handy Awards adorn the walls, which also display photos, signed guitars and other career markers.
This club caters to all. It regularly is host to professional athletes with an ear for the blues, and this year it catered a private party for winners of the Mackie Awards (NFL); it is also frequented by players from the White Sox and Cubs.
And now to the North Side. All the North Side clubs are easily accessed. Cabs are readily available from all hours of the night to the wee hours of the morning, and parking is relatively easy.
Kingston Mines: 2548 N. Halsted; 7:30 p.m.-4 a.m. weeknights, 7:30 p.m.-5 a.m. Saturday; cover: $8 weekdays, $10 weekends; (312) 477-4647. The Mines is located in Lincoln Park, one mile east of the Lincoln Park Zoo and Lake Michigan. Nearby, on Fullerton, there is a covered outdoor theater that features plays run by the park district. Within a block there are great restaurants featuring a wide variety of fare.
"We have two bands every night of the year," explains Doc Peligrino, the proprietor of the Mines and the man credited with first bringing blues to the North Side. "We have three bars, three rooms, an updated sound system, and plenty of seating. One band plays on one stage for an hour, and as soon as they stop the other band on the other stage is ready to go.
"Blues is a celebration of life," Mr. Peligrino adds. "It's important that it survives -- and to survive, it means that young musicians have to have a chance to make a living at it to have heroes that they can pattern themselves on. If we give them a stage, and some income and an audience, they can have goals of being successful doing this kind of music."
Opened in 1968, the Mines is the oldest surviving blues club in Chicago. It is perhaps the most widely known party blues club in the Windy City, and is a late-night meeting place for many musicians who visit after gigs to sit in, or just to party.
Mr. Peligrino remembers the night the Rolling Stones happened in, for example -- and the Grateful Dead. "Albert Collins used to come in and sit in," Mr. Peligrino remembers. "He was a feisty, fiery player." Sports heroes such as Michael Jordan are also patrons from time to time.
B.L.U.E.S.: 2519 N. Halsted; 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday to Friday, 9 p.m.-3 a.m. Saturday; cover: $3 to $5; (312) 528-1012; access: Lincoln Park, across the street from the Kingston Mines.
Proprietor Bill Gilmore proudly claims ownership of three premier blues clubs -- two in Chicago and one in New York.
This tiny club is frequented by Chicago's finest blues writers, critics and musicians, who talk shop, reminisce and mingle with an audience made up largely of out-of-towners who have heard of this blues shrine. "We get the really hard-core blues people on Halsted," Mr. Gilmore says. "They either love it or hate it here. It's 1,000 square feet -- a 100-seat club -- the smallest major blues club that I know of. Either they don't want to be packed in, or they say, 'Yeah! This is it!' We get people from Europe that walk in and wonder where the music room is. They can't believe that Otis Clay or Son Seals will be playing here.
"I book 20 different bands a month, and I do a lot of shows there that I can't do other places for economic reasons. We book the best of the best no matter the draw." Mr. Gilmore is referring here to artists like Jimmy Walker, Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes and Buster Benton -- performers who might otherwise fall through the cracks were it not for B.L.U.E.S. The club features well-known artists like Son Seals and Otis Clay as well. "Every August I do a blues festival featuring 31 bands in as many days -- covering the range of Chicago blues as much as I can."
Bill Gilmore's other Chicago blues venue, B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, (312) 525-8989, is roughly one mile from B.L.U.E.S., at 1124 W. Belmont in the Lakeview area, north of Lincoln Park. It is considerably larger than B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and features blues acts Thursday through Monday with an open jam session every Wednesday. There are many restaurants in the immediate area, and parking is exceptionally easy.
Artists like Otis Clay, Little Milton and Billy Branch bring a cover charge of $5 to $10 on weekends and $3 on weeknights. The clientele is typically regulars -- blues lovers from the "burbs" and college listeners from Depaul, Northwestern and the University of Chicago.
The ambience is always laid-back, as listeners sway at their seats or make use of the dance floor in front of the stage.
If you go
Blues fans may want to travel to the Windy City for the WinterBreak Chicago Blues Weekend, Feb. 9-12. For more information on quarterly Chicago Blues Weekends, call the Mayor's Office of Special Events at (312) 744-3315.