Monday, June 13, 2011

City blues festival not what it once was

There are times I think I got spoiled by the first time I ever went to the Chicago Blues Festival.

I remember it was the Friday night in 1985. Which was a unique night because the blues festival tried to recreate the bill from an evening at the Montreux Jazz Festival from a couple of years before.

J.B. HUTTO HAD since passed away. But the rest of the evening’s performers were all on stage for that Friday night in Chicago (June 7, 1985, and yeah, I had to look it up).

That is how I can say I saw John Hammond, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Koko Taylor, all in one night right after each other.

Any one of those performers are substantial enough that being able to say I saw them at the festival would have been a star-studded night. But to see them, along with Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson and Sugar Blue?

Any night when Sugar Blue’s harp playing is the weak link in the program is evidence of a particularly strong night.

IT MAY WELL be the biggest concert experience I have ever attended in my life (I generally prefer the thought of listening to music in a small club, rather than anything resembling a stadium setting). It definitely is bigger than what has become of our city’s blues festival in recent years.

And my night sitting in Grant Park was a freebie. I didn’t have to pay a dime to get in. I still remember a conversation I had with a young woman from out-of-town who couldn’t get over the fact that Chicago was capable of staging such an event of big names (by blues standards, everything is relative) without extorting us for every penny we have.

Now I am the first to admit that I comprehend the city’s financial constraints. I realize that other aspects of business that the city tends to has a higher priority than putting on a Top Quality lineup of entertainment.

But it just seems like the blues festival isn’t what it once was. I couldn’t help but notice the reports about how one of the side stages at this year’s blues festival was sponsored by Mississippi state officials.

WHICH MAY MAKE sense in terms of authenticity. After all, the blues is a music that originated in the delta and wound up in all those clubs because of the Great Migration of black people from the south to the South Side, where the musicians here followed the lead of Les Paul and put electricity to their instruments – creating a unique sound from the country blues native to places like Tupelo.

It almost makes me wonder if the fate of the blues fest is to become a joint affair. Perhaps it will be passed back and forth between the two states, hosted in alternate years in Millenium Park and requiring us to travel down south in other years.

Which is why I’m all the more likely to cherish that night when I got to hear Koko and Stevie Ray one right after the other – Taylor belting out songs with that gravelly, powerful voice she had and Vaughan showing just how well he could play the guitar.

How well?

BOPPING ABOUT THE Internet, I have discovered that one of my fellow festival goers from that night managed to make a recording of Vaughan’s portion of the evening, and a bootleg album of that performance can be found if one is persistent enough in their Internet search.

Find it yourself! I don’t want to be encouraging bootleg purchases.

Now why am I reminiscing about an evening I had 26 years ago this week?

Part of it is because I didn’t go to the blues festival this year. So anything I would write about the performances or their significance would be second-hand or based off the work of someone else – which some people would take an absolutist attitude toward and use to try to denounce me.

AT LEAST THAT’S the lesson I got from the Chicago Sun-Times last week when they dismissed their television critic (and long-time featurey, fluff writer) Paige Wiser for only watching part of a show, and trying to look up information about what was in the rest of the program that she missed in order to fill out her review.

As though there would have been no problem whatsoever had she confined her review to the part of the show she saw. I doubt that! I wonder if this is a newspaper cost-cutting measure being disguised as an ethical lapse.

So to avoid any similar convoluted accusations against myself, my admission is that even though I enjoy listening to jazz and blues music, I didn’t catch any of this year’s festival.

Although based on the bills I saw for the weekend, I don’t think any of them came close to comparing that night back in ’85 – a year that in my mind was more special for that night than for the eventual championship the Chicago Bears brought to the city come autumn.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The overpaid political hacks at the city's office of special events have run that once proud event into the ground.