A pessimist might look at the 2012 lineup and complain that budget constraints and the mortality of postwar blues icons have left the once-greatest Blues Fest sad and, well, blue. But scratch beneath the surface and this proves to be one of the most playfully curated, promising fests in years.
Tight belts mean that flying in world-renowned artists as warm-ups and side stagers is in the past, but Chicago has enough eccentric characters that you might find your (fried-dough-filled) jaw dropping when you happen upon acts like bizarre, blind busker the Big DooWopper, or the iconoclastic ball of energy Eddie C. Campbell, or the fez-crowned king of audience pandering, Lil’ Ed. Additionally, Mississippi’s brilliant Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, once a long-standing Blues Fest tradition before founder Otha Turner’s death in 2003, is back—though, frustratingly, it plays at the same time as the Fat Albert’s Junkyard Band–inspired Homemade Jamz Blues Band.
The headliners also embody the notion of making the most of what you got. While past crowds can boast of seeing legends, the spotlight of Friday’s main stage shines on survivors who may not be household names, but offer enriching links to the past. Zelig-like guitarist Milton Hopkins began gigging in the 1940s, played and recorded with Little Richard and supported Johnny Ace, B.B. King, Sly Stone and more. He performs with jazz vocalist Jewel Brown, who sang with Satchmo’s band in the 1960s. Headliner Texas Johnny Brown not only played behind Amos Milburn in the 1940s, but Milburn played behind Brown on his solo sides, too.
The crafty booking continues Saturday by capitalizing on one of our favorite blues traditions—the “Son of” talent, i.e. Kenny “Son of Willie” Smith and Mud “Son of Muddy Waters” Morganfield, both performing in the Petrillo shell. Sometimes, the lineage is a little murky (never quite figured out the deal with Bobby Bland Jr., who busks outside Blues Fest). For our money, there’s no Sonuva who holds a candle to Floyd “Son of Johnnie” Taylor, offspring of arguably the greatest soul singer ever. Unlike his singing siblings—Johnnie, Jr., Tasha, and T.J. Hooker-Taylor—when Floyd Taylor grooms his moustache just right, he’s a squint away from the spitting image of his father. Better yet, his pipes recall his late, great daddy, too. Though Floyd’s original recordings never match his dad’s Stax work, he’s pretty close to Johnnie’s memorable Malaco music, so much so that it can be jarring to hear him use hip-hop lingo.
Sunday is ladies’ night, bringing it home with perhaps our greatest living local performer, Mavis Staples. We’ve written so much about her in these pages that there’s little left to say. You might recall that, as a child, she’d sneak peeks at matinees in blues bars. In 1993, the Staple Singers rocked Blues Fest, doing mostly their soulful ’70s hits. A year later, patriarch Pops Staples took the stage, unscheduled and solo, for a short, chilling all-blues set. Mavis could go either way. If the 72-year-old plans to alter her songbook for the setting, this could be something quite special. If not, that’s cool, too. Only a pessimist would complain about a free concert by R&B royalty.
Chicago Blues Fest runs in Grant Park Friday 8 to Sunday 10.