Dispatch: Day Two of the 40th Chicago Blues Festival Is a Celebration of the Mississippi-to-Chicago Connection

The Mississippi Delta is considered the cradle of the Blues. This treasure sprang up in the state where cotton was king. It was born of the sweat from grueling work in the sun and determination to make something out of what seemed to be nothing. John Lee Hooker said it best, "The Blues is a healer". On Friday, two of the performers on the Pritzker Pavilion stage were descendants of Mississippi. They brought the stories, gospel shouts, and the magic from which rock and roll was born.

First to the stage was Corey Harris who carried the aura of the village griot. He was born in Denver but honed his talent on the streets of New Orleans. Harris was a solo performer with just his acoustic guitar and a voice that resonated with the audience. He used a slide that resembled the original tool made from the neck of a glass bottle. Harris' guitar playing is impeccable. He plucks, strums, and beats in accompaniment to songs of love lost, keeping the devil at bay, and celebrating Mother Africa.

Corey Harris. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Harris' set was filled with short songs that evolved from the field hollers and the church. I loved that his music celebrated Black women with lyrics like "looking for my brown", which is what a darker-skinned woman was called. Black women were the object of adoration and the cause of taking to the bottle. The Black femme fatale was not the norm in popular culture except in the Blues.

He sang classics like "61 Highway" written by Mississippi Fred McDowell, and "When Did You Leave Heaven" by Big Bill Broonzy. Harris's music is African-inspired and he is an African-centric artist. He is a visual artist and an anthologist with the book Blues People Illustrated. Corey Harris is ever rising in the Blues world.

The second act of the evening was the electrifying Castro Coleman better known as Mr. Sipp- short for Mississippi. Sipp started his career in gospel music which is the foundation of Blues music down to the flattened chords and call-and-response structure. An ace guitarist with a stage presence like a preacher, sipp's songs range from gospel to soul, and of course, Blues. The interconnected nature of those three brought the audience to their feet.

Mr. Sipp. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

His setlist included "Jump the Broom Baby", the much-imitated "I'm Going Down", and a defiant "Ain't Nobody's Business What I Do with My Check". Mr. Sipp took us to church with a gorgeous rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come". His backup group the True Believers have recorded many of Mr. Sipp's gospel music and their harmony on the Cooke cover and "Amazing Grace" gave me the chills.

Mr. Sipp was then joined by Grammy-winning Blues guitarist Dexter Allen and they blew the roof off, turning Millennium Park into a Mississippi juke joint. The soul singer emerged as he sang to a woman in the audience while holding her hand. Also, finally, a name can be given to my Aunt Pete's tippy dance! It is called the Mississippi Two-Step. Aunt Pete would get lit on a sip of Uncle Dub's whiskey and I had coined those moves the tippy dance. Mr. Sipp had everyone doing the Two-Step and he jumped into the crowd waving the preacher's towel. It was fire and I could easily see Mr. Sipp as the future headliner.

The headlining performance was a tribute to Blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers. The group was Rogers' son Jimmy D. Lane on guitar, grandson Sebastian Lane -also on guitar, drummer Kenny Smith, Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne on the keyboard, and Felton Crews on bass. Jimmy Rogers was the second guitarist for Muddy Waters and they created the classic Electrified Blues that is at the root of the British Invasion Rock music. Two special guests from Muddy Waters' original band that I saw back at Chicago Fest in the '70s joined them: guitarist Bob Margolin and blues harp player Kim Wilson.

Kim Wilson. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

This was a legend-packed band to honor Jimmy Rogers whose influence is heard in the music of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. It was excellent bass riff-driven with a backbeat that kept heads bobbing and feet stomping. Songs like "That's Alright", "You're the One", and "Walkin' by Myself" told the stories of cheating women, hard work, and commiserating at the lounge.

Watching Bob Margolin and Kim Wilson in fine form was a highlight. Margolin uses a glass slide like the old beer bottle-neck slides. (Corey Harris also uses a bottle-neck slide). Jimmy Lane and Margolin traded off singing with Sebastian Lane joining in. A side note about Sebastian Lane is that he mentioned how the festival gave the musicians health screenings. Jimmy Rogers died from colon cancer and his grandson is now an MD doing his residency in general surgery.

L-R Jimmy D. Lane and Sebastian Lane. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

I felt a great sense of pride on behalf of the Rogers family who were given a proclamation of Jimmy Rogers Day in Chicago from Mayor Brandon Johnson before the show started. Rogers' descendants were on that stage as recipients of love for the gift of great music and mentoring to generations of musicians. It was a great show and a great time. The blues is an American art form that inspires and is a balm for the soul.

Saturday's lineup includes a centennial celebration of Dinah Washington- "Empress of the Blues". She is one of my favorite singers and attended DuSable High School. Dee Alexander will sing Dinah with the mega-talented Bruce Henry standing in for Brook Benton. I will be there early to check out the side stages—Rosa's Lounge, and the Mississippi Juke Joint. Some cool merchandise is for sale that is worth the price. A heads up on the food and beverage pricing: the festival may be free but the food may give you sticker shock. A can of beer is $9.50. I spent $31 on a sandwich, fries, and bottled water. The brisket sandwich was the bomb but, at that price, I should get a car wash or a Blues Festival seat cushion. Come on down and splurge on a great time!

The 40th Chicago Blues Festival continues through Sunday, June 9, at Millennium Park, at the convergence of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue.

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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.