Continuing its legacy as one of the city’s true cultural benchmarks, the Chicago Blues Festival returns to Millennium Park for a four-day stand, beginning Thursday, June 8 and running through Sunday.
Generally referred to as Blues Fest, the free event — initially held at Grant Park, beginning in 1983 — features dozens of bands and performers in celebration of the Chicago-born music’s tradition while shining a spotlight on the genre’s contributions to soul, R&B, gospel, rock, hip hop and more. This year’s highlights include a 70th anniversary salute to Delmark Records, the oldest continuously operating jazz and blues independent record label in the country (founded in 1953 and based in Chicago since 1958); a centennial tribute to legendary blues guitarist Albert King; a special Women in Blues tribute; and a headlining appearance by renowned Tex-Mex roots rockers Los Lobos, part of the band’s 50th anniversary tour.
“Blues Fest is always an opportunity to revisit the past, and at the same time show how blues music is ever-present today,” said Blues Festival Programmer Carlos Cuauhtemoc Tortolero. “Without blues, specifically Chicago blues, there’s no rock ‘n’ roll. It’s an art form begun by the African-American community, and it’s extremely influential. Blues serves as the roots of all American music, even jazz. It all started with the blues, and Blues Fest highlights that connection.”
The fest kicks off at 5:30 p.m. Thursday with Wayne Baker Brooks, followed by the Blind Boys of Alabama (with Bobby Rush), and closing with the Albert King tribute, featuring Donald Kinsey, Larry McCray, Rico McFarland and Tony Llorens (among others). All performances will be staged at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion on opening day.
Blues Fest expands to include two additional stages — Rosa’s Lounge, located at the North Promenade, and the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage (South Promenade) — and longer hours (noon to 9 p.m.) for the final three days.
John Primer & The Real Deal Blues Band will headline at Pritzker Pavilion on Friday, preceded by sets from the Jimmy Burns Band, Jontavious Willis and Nora Jean Wallace — as well as the Delmark Records celebration, featuring Dave Specter and at least a dozen other performers. Among several acts, Rosa’s Lounge offers the Eddie Taylor 100th Birthday Celebration with the Taylor Family, and Last Call with WDCB Radio and the Smiley Tillmon Band, featuring Kate Moss.
Vasti Jackson, Eddie Cotton, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Mzz Reese will command the Juke Joint Stage on Friday.
In addition, a one-time screening of “Born in Chicago,” a full-length documentary on the history of Chicago blues, will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at the nearby Chicago Cultural Center. Registration is required. The fest also features a photography exhibition, “The Rhythm Within Our Blues,” consisting of life-sized photos depicting the history and authentic culture of Chicago blues.
“It’s important to acknowledge the history,” Tortolero said. “This music was born in the south and came up to Chicago. Now it’s global, and people from all over the world want to come to the Chicago Blues Festival — the largest free blues festival in the world. It’s unique to Chicago and instrumental to our culture.”
The Pritzker Pavilion headliner on Saturday is Mud Morganfield, son of the late Muddy Waters, with Demetria Taylor (with the Mike Wheeler Band), Sugaray Rayford and Joe Pratt & Source One Band (featuring New Orleans Beau) preceding. The Women in Blues Tribute — saluting Deitra Farr, Katherine Davis and Sugar Pie DeSanto, and featuring Sheryl Youngblood, Joanna Connor and others — gets things started.
Other Saturday performers include Rosa’s Lounge headliner Dave Weld & The Imperial Flames, following the Rosa’s Lounge Jam Session, featuring Mary Lane, Lil’ Ed, Willie Buck and Billy Branch. The Juke Joint Stage offers Super Chikan, John Primer with Steve Bell, the Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band, and Chris Gill & The Sole Shakers.
Four-time Grammy Award winners Los Lobos get the nod to close Blues Fest Sunday night. Best-known for its cover of the Ritchie Valens classic, “La Bamba,” Los Lobos fuses elements of Mexican folk music, blues, country, zydeco, R&B and soul into its roots-rock repertoire.
“You see so many bands play the blues all over the world,” Tortolero said. “Los Lobos is a perfect example. They’re roots rockers who can play pretty much everything, and it always circles back to the blues.”
Also hitting the Pritzker Pavilion Stage on Sunday are Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, Youngblood, Stephen Hull, and The Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra, featuring Terrie Odabi. Morry Sochat & The Special 20s top the Rosa’s Lounge bill, and O.B. Buchana will headline the Mississippi Juke Joint.
“People will see a sample of the past, present and future,” Tortolero said. “We go to great lengths to honor the legends … to acknowledge these milestones and personalities, and the contributions of the past. Then you think of the present, with a ton of blues musicians who play here in the city. They form the bedrock of the blues community here, and you have newer artists emerging as well. That dispels any notion that the blues are dying. The blues connection in Chicago is ever-present, and that connection is important to the history of Chicago — not just the blues.”
Attendees can bring their own food and beverages (no alcohol), subject to a bag search. Alcohol will be available at concession stands, and Wally’s BBQ Pit will offer a variety of barbeque fare, along with sides and sweets, and specialty drinks catered by Eleven North Hospitality.
For more information, including a complete schedule with starting times, visit www.chicago.gov and follow the Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events link.