Dispatch: The 40th Chicago Blues Festival Kicks Off at the Ramova Theatre in Bridgeport

I wondered what the audience at the Ramova Theatre for the opening night of the Chicago Blues Festival would think about the second-generation lineup of blues artists. Shemekia Copeland and Ronnie Baker Brooks are the children of blues legends Johnny Copeland and Lonnie Brooks. I have heard both artists on streaming music stations but the newer music feels like a distilled version of the original artists. It is impeccably produced and mixed, so I wondered what the next-gen artists would bring to the stage.

For me, the blues is a feeling or a memory that washes over you and either you're cleansed of the bad feelings or you get to wallow. That is part of the beauty of blues music and Chicago has been the touchstone for music out of the Mississippi Delta, the bayous of Louisiana, and places like Lufkin, Texas. I grew up when blues music was heard in West Side lounges or South Side clubs like the Burning Spear or the High Chaparral Lounge. The smell of Pall Malls and whiskey coated the air with top notes of Brut cologne and Magic Shaving Powder. Sweat, gold-rimmed teeth, and some serious wig craft were on display. Thursday night at the Ramova Theatre in Bridgeport had that aura. I could feel it from the people that came to the show. There was a bar selling colorful drinks and canned malt beverages. There was no smoking and I did not catch a whiff of that horrid egg-smelling shaving powder. The music brought that feeling fully to life.

Shemekia Copeland. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Ronnie Baker Brooks opened the show with a mix of classics and music that he penned. His set was heavy on tributes to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and of course his father, the late Lonnie Brooks. I like his songs and the covers but was not keen on the impersonations. It was a flashback to watching Rich Little on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I did like his composition "Accept My Love" with that smooth bridge and chorus. "All True Man" punched that driving bass that is a signature of blues music with a saucy line, "Can I taste your honey in your hive?" It would not be a proper blues night in contemporary Chicago without "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" by Muddy Waters and one for the beer-swilling bros' "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson. I wonder how often I will hear that over the next three days.

Brooks was joined by his brother Wayne Baker Brooks and the amazing blues harp player Billy Branch. The Brooks brothers are wicked guitar players with crisp notes and great precision. Billy Branch tore it up on a cover of "Miss You". It ended up feeling like a jam session and a family reunion. Brooks' band is top shelf featuring Phil Castleberry on bass, Chris Singleton on drums, and Daryll Coouts on the Hammond B3 giving out some serious Greg Allman vibes.

Shemekia Copeland gave an unfiltered and all-sass set of gospel-tinged singing. Copeland possesses a husky contralto with a powerful vibrato. She has crisp diction and stretches out the notes for a unique throwback vibe. I was digging it as was the audience. Her music is politically charged and feminist with songs inspired by the Civil Rights Movement that carry into contemporary times.

Copeland sang an emotional "Clotilda's On Fire" from her album Uncivil War. The song is about the ship Clotilda that brought enslaved Africans to the shores of Alabama after importing enslaved people was outlawed. The Clotilda came in, emptied its human cargo, and then was set on fire to conceal the illegal activity. However, in life and in the blues, wrong is always brought to light. "Ain't Got Time for Hate" was written for her son as he grows up in a country still divided by bigotry.

Copeland and her band tore into "My Own Tears", and I was transported to that lounge vibe with the red Naugahyde booths lined in nail studs. I heard a bit of the great Koko Taylor in her voice. Copeland sang with Taylor who christened her the "new Queen of the Blues". "Nobody But You" was written by her father Johnny Copeland and had that driving bass sound that is a signature of blues music.

Ronnie Baker Brooks, Wayne Baker Brooks, and Billy Branch joined Copeland on stage for a smashing finale that raised the roof at the Ramova. I never thought in all of my years that a blues festival would play in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood. It was notoriously racist back in the days of Richard J. Daley and people like me did not traverse the streets. If we went to a baseball game at Comiskey, we got out before it got dark. Copeland's music had that much more relevance in light of that history.

The Ramova Theater opened in 1929 and served the Bridgeport neighborhood until it closed in 1985 showing Police Academy 2 as its final movie. It sat empty until Tyler and Emily Nevius purchased it with plans for restoring the theater to its original glory and then some. Celebrity investors include Quincy Jones, Jennifer Hudson, and Chance the Rapper, and a troupe of lesser-known Chicagoans plus TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funding. The Ramova is back after 40 years, adding some good juju to the Chicago Blues Festival, also turning 40.

The Chicago Blues Festival 2024 had a great launch and promises to be a fine time over the weekend. There are some exciting tributes to Dinah Washington, Otis Spann, and Jimmy Rogers on deck at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. There are side stages such as Rosa's Lounge, named after the famous venue on the west side, and the Mississippi Juke Joint. Both will feature local and national blues artists. This year's festival will be closed out with the living legend Buddy Guy. It's June 7 through 9 and it is free. Get yourself there for a rocking time filled with tales of cheating women, hard-drinking men, and love on the side.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.