Thursday, June 17, 2010

Grammy Association Kicks off Chicago Blues Fest by Mark Thompson with Steve Jones

The Recording Academy, Chicago Chapter held their 8th annual Kick Off Jam on Wednesday, June 9, 2010, at Buddy Guy’s famous club Legends, that recently opened at its new location a block north of the old site. Featuring an expanded stage, more tables and clean sightlines, the new Legends is a state-of-the-art facility with an outstanding sound system that certainly was put to the test on this night of celebration.

Opening the festivities was Billy Branch and the Son of Blues, who laid down a boogie beat with Branch using his harp to create a variety of train sounds. After a strong rendition of “Scratch My Back”, Branch brought eleven children to the stage. They were members of a harmonica class Branch had been teaching at a local Chicago neighborhood youth program. The kids showed plenty of spirit and enthusiasm in their playing of their harps as well as their singing on “Stormy Monday” and “Shake, Rattle & Roll”; they even added a bit of hip-hop flavor at one point.

Next up was Vino Louden, the lead guitar player for many years for the late KoKo Taylor. Louden made a point of thanking the Music Cares program, an affiliate of the Recording Academy, which helped arrange transportation home for Vino after a near-fatal auto accident two years ago. He showed his appreciation on an emotionally charged version of “I’ll Take Care of You”, one of the evening’s highlights.

Otis Clay quickly raised the energy level in the room, showcasing his tender side on “I Can Take You to Heaven Tonight” with his full band in support. On “A Nickel and A Nail”, Clay sang in the intense, gritty style that epitomized his legendary career. The raw emotion that Clay draws on and transmits to his audience is powerfully spiritual.

The Chicago Stone Lightning Band showed their appreciation for the original Fleetwood Mac by starting their set with a cover of “Stop Messin’ Around”, led by led by lead singer and guitarist Ben Pirani. They closed with an original tune, “Do Yourself a Favor” they will be featured on an upcoming release.

The talented Dave Herrero was another highlight with his animated performance. Herrero is a soulful vocalist and a fine guitar player who laid down a rocking slice of Texas-style blues on “Halo” and “Nacogdoches”.

The evening took a detour to the dark corner of the world that Otis Taylor inhabits. Backed by members Of Umphrey’s McGee plus Billy Branch on harp and Chicagoan Anne Harris on violin, Taylor strapped on a guitar and took the audience on an intense ride through the gamut of human experience. His searing version of “Hey Joe” mixed sexual overtones with a surging musical accompaniment for another high point of the evening.
Blessed with a powerful voice, Nellie “Tiger” Travis entertained the crowd with her original material including a touching tribute to KoKo Taylor, “Queen of the Blues”. Following her was another woman with a big voice, Cathy Richardson. Her tough, soulful voice brought to mind images of Janis Joplin, a role Richardson once played in an off Broadway production. The blues world has some fine up and coming female singers to continue to carry the torch.

Harmonica ace Matthew Skoller brought the party back to the traditional Chicago blues style with the help of Carlos Johnson on guitar, Marty Sammons on keyboards and Marty Binder on drums. Skoller’s set served up proof that he is one of the top harp players on the Chicago scene. Just after the conclusion of his performance, the Chicago BlackHawks won the Stanley Cup, much to the delight of the crowd.
Then it was star time as Miller brought the legendary club owner to the stage. Buddy Guy graciously acknowledged the compliments and appreciation from friends and fans alike for the new club, thanking everyone for their continued support with a special mention for the city of Chicago. Then Buddy gave a big shout-out to the champion BlackHawks. Guy then did a short set without his guitar, reminding the audience that he is still a superb singer, as he weaved together a medley of classic blues tunes. He finally relinquished the stage, stating that he wanted the other acts to get their time and that no one ws there to see him; I certainly must disagree since it is always a huge pleasure to listen to Buddy.

It is never easy to follow a legend but the next group found Carlos Johnson leading the band that backed the dynamic pairing of Billy Branch and Sugar Blue. The two harmonica wizards showcased their contrasting styles – Branch bending and contorting his body, his hands caressing his harp as he tried to blow the house down while Sugar Blue stood almost motionless, his hands barely moving while he blew intricate lines, improvising like a master jazz musician. The contrast of styles of play impressed both Carlos Johnson and the crowd, woth both harp players laying out intricate licks in their own unique styles and tones.

The big finale started with Ronnie Baker Brooks and his brother, Wayne Baker Brooks, on guitar and vocals with his band in support. They traded guitar licks through a rousing “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and then slowed the pace on ‘Long Distance Call”. Then the patriarch of the family, Lonnie Brooks, arrived on stage to the cheers of the appreciative audience. Brooks, a recent inductee to the Blues Hall of Fame, tore into “Watch Dog” as the three guitarists took turns showcasing their individual styles. Next, Lonnie started a train rhythm on his guitar, steadily building the pace until the band joined in as Lonnie continued to squeeze notes out of his guitar; he gave the audience quite a show. Finishing with a brief chorus of “Sweet Home Chicago”, Lonnie picked his guitar with his tongue before leaving the stage.

But the evening wasn’t quite over as Wayne called Carlos Johnson and Billy Branch back to the stage for a final jam that ended the evening six hours after it started. The finale was a raucous and wild adventure, with the younger Brooks offering his guitar out to audience members to pluck as he fingered notes and chords.

Congratulations to the Recording Academy for another outstanding party and a truly fitting opening for another Chicago Blues Fest weekend. And a tip of the hat to the Legends staff for the great job they did of taking care of their guests all night long. The new Legends is truly a marvelous venue that will provide a true showcase for celebrating blues music for years to come.

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