Chicago blues mini-tour
It'd be kinda foolish to show up in Chicago and NOT take in any music, right? I was lucky enough to be there on Labor Day weekend to catch the Jazz Festival featuring Ahmad Jamal (celebrating his 80th b-day) and a grand home-coming from Henry Threadgill with his latest combo, Zooid, not to mention Ramsey Lewis being interviewed about his career by Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich (a glorious jazz nut himself).
But I needed blues fix too. Part of that came from a pilgrimage to Chess Records, now a museum called (appropriately enough) Blues Heaven. Like Sun Studio in Memphis, you can see the control room and equipment along with photos of its classic inhabitants (Muddy, Wolf, Etta, Sonny Boy and so many more), especially one of the 20th century's greatest songwriters, bassist/arranger/producer Willie Dixon, who's honored all over the place there. For the tour, you get to sit in the studio and watch an hour-long history of the label, including interviews with Muddy and an English admirer named Mick. And that's not even mentioning the memorabilia displays, the huge banners outside (see above) or the iron gate with silhouette figures of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Albert King. And of course a gift shop, where we loaded up on T-shirts and fridge magnets. You really felt honored to be there and to witness where some wonderful musical history took place. Not only that but the place is also a foundation that "assist(s) in documentation and promotion of the Blues, but to also support Blues artists and the business of music."
But seeing blues history ain't the same without seeing some blues itself, dig? Buddy Guy's is probably the most obvious place to go so as novices, we did though we were advised by fans at the club that we needed to go elsewhere to hear 'real blues.' Regardless, the place is decked out with wonderful photos along the back wall and nice memorabilia from Buddy himself. We saw a good acoustic set from Jimmy Johnson (early sets are free) and then came back to see a good electric set from Quintus McCormick (pictured here, shortly before he roamed among the crowd, much like Buddy does).
Curious about what else there was out there, we also headed to Kingston Mines another night and I'm glad we did. Calling itself 'Chicago's oldest and largest real blues club,' in the Lincoln Park section of town, they offer quite a deal- two competing stages where one act plays and when they're done, another act starts in another room, all for a $12 cover. Even better, if you show up on a Sunday night and go to the B.L.U.E.S. club down the street, you also get free admission to Kingston Mines also. A word of warning though- they have good soul food at KM but be prepared to wait a while for it. The night we were there, we caught a good singer/guitarist named Joanna Connor in the first room and R&B roof-raisers Big James & the Chicago Playboys in the other room. The owner was a real no-nonsense big dude who laid down some rules for the packed crowd before the music started and assured us all that it was no newspaper misprint, that the bands were indeed going to play until 5AM (and that last call was just before that when Chi-town goes dry for several hours).
As if that wasn't enough, one more stop was needed for a real blues tour, taking me to a place simply and appropriately called Blue Chicago, again manned by an MC/owner that no sane person would want to mess around with (you can see him on the intro film of the webpage). It was small, cramped and no-frill, which is exactly what you'd hope a blues club would be. It was a decent enough joint though with a cool bouncer and bartender, plus tourists other than myself from other parts of the States, plus Australia and Japan and even some locals. The night started out with a solid four-piece band called the Troublemakers with two singer/guitarists who traded off songs well. It turns out that they were just the warm-up. The main attraction was a blues mama called Grana Louise. She was a great belter and had some nice salty talk to rev up the crowd. She definitely deserves some gigs at out-of-state blues festivals.
Even with all of that, I still missed the other blues clubs like Lee's Unleaded, Checkerboard Lounge and Rosa Lounge (one of the 'real blues clubs,' I'm told) but it was a start. And it was good enough to make me wanna go back and check out the rest too.