Dispatch: The Final Day of the Chicago Blues Festival Was for Home Grown Legends and Grown Folks

The big finale for Chicago Blues Festival #40 brought gorgeous weather and fevered anticipation for the music. People were lined up early in the sun for the pavilion seats to open. Posters were sold out, t-shirts were getting low, even the stickers were flying out of the merchandise tent. The reason for the frenzy? Buddy Guy was the headliner and this is his last big tour. Buddy Guy is not retiring, he's just not doing the big arena tours any more. He is turning 88 and wants to enjoy his club Legends at 900 S. Wabash and as he repeated on the stage "I like to have fun." He said that with a mischievous smile that gave the crowd a reason to roar.

Rie "Miss Lee" Kanehira. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

A centennial tribute to Blues piano legend Otis Spann opened the main stage performances. Spann played piano with Muddy Waters and gave an innovative spin on boogie-woogie style and stride piano. Spann had "that left hand" that you will hear musicians talk about when it comes to Gospel or Blues. Four pianists graced the stage for the tribute. Rie "Miss Lee" Kanehira led the festivities with Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith on drums, and Billy Flynn on the lead guitar. Miss Lee is a petite woman from Japan but when she sat down to play, she blasted that boogie-woogie sound. She also sang "Oh Baby" as if she was born in the Delta.

Sumito "Ariyo" Ariyoshi was next with a more improvisational feel but definitely in the sound style of Spann. Ariyo played with many old-school players and beautifully mixes complex rhythms with Blues chords. He also sang with a smoky edge to his voice without missing a beat on the keys. Roosevelt Purifoy was third on the roster adding some physical performance to his gig. He has an exuberant stage presence and slid off the bench playing to genuflect. His bright smile and phrasing pushed the mood higher.

Last but not least was Johnny Iguana who played with Junior Wells and Otis Rush, who are revered as Chicago Blues artists. Iguana pointed out his parents in the audience and lit into the piano. It must have felt incredible to have them there for the performance. Watching all four circle the piano and play a duet ending with everyone on the Steinway. I could feel the reverence they had for the music and the instrument.

Joining the pianist was South Side singer Oscar "Mr. 43rd Street" Wilson, bassist Bob Stroger, and Billy Flynn who has played with everyone and has a Grammy from playing with Beyonce. These are the finest musicians who have earned the respect of their peers and the love of audiences the world over. Oscar Wilson is a consummate Blues elder statesman. He wore a beautiful sherbet windowpane suit, and a Panama hat, and carried a cane with a golf lion's head on the top. His voice was classic Blues with that sound from the South Side, part Gospel, part Blues, with a little rasp, and perfect pitch.

Bob Stroger. Photo by Kathy D. Hey

Wilson can talk the Blues rhetoric as well and it was hilarious. He pointed out how the pretty boys get all the girls but "they have to buy dinner, breakfast, lunch, brunch, and a snack. I go to 75th Street and pick up a bucket of rib tips, and a half gallon of gin and can make love all night long. I get breakfast in bed if I do it right!" Mic drop! Bob Stroger on the bass was called a "slim goody" back in the day. He was so cool playing his electric bass wearing his felt Stetson and a three-piece suit. Stroger is not a flashy player but he kept that beat hopping for two sets as he played with the Cash Box Kings. Flynn, Miss Lee, Smith, and Wilson are members of the Cash Box Kings led by Joe Nosek out of Wisconsin.

Joe Nosek. Photo by Kathy D. Hey

The sets blended into each other smoothly and ramped the energy higher as more people filed in and filled the lawn. Nosek is a whirl of energy, constantly moving and playing that harp as if he were born on the South Side instead of Madison, Wisconsin. He said he attributes his love of Blues harmonica to his reverence for Little Walter. Marion Walter Jacobs came from Louisiana to Chicago and established himself as a self-taught savant. Nosek emulates that improvisational style with extended jams.

The Blues classics flowed with both acts. "Last Night's Dream of Love" and "Why Does Bad Luck Follow Me" were interspersed with Wilson's banter about back in the day. One particular bar that Wilson hung out on 43rd or as he calls "4 n'Trey all the way", had some characters that were larger than life. Big Titty Bessie, Slick who would steal your wallet, and Wolf the knock-out artist were all featured in "Freefall Boogie Cause the Bank Done Snatched My Home" and "I Got a Mule Kickin' in My Stall". It was fantastic music, hilarious, and just a little raunchy leading up to the proclamation of Buddy Guy Day.

The proclamation brought Buddy Guy out before his set and the applause was amazing. Guy stood there taking it in with that wide grin. He said he could feel the love and that he loved us too. When he took the stage with his custom polka dot guitar cranking "Damn Right I Got the Blues!", everyone was on their feet and did not sit back down. Buddy Guy inspired Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. When he broke into "I Just Wanna Make Love to You", he asked the crowd to sing the title line and then stopped the song saying "What the hell was that shit? I need to hear you! I don't like to have fun by myself!" The singing reached the decibels that he wanted and he kept going.

He sauntered out into the crowd with security and the Chicago Police frantically in tow. The "chase" was showing on the big screen. People were snapping selfies and the look of joy on their faces was beautiful. He had a little boy hold his hand while he plucked the strings. The look of joy and mischief on Guy's face was everything. He basked in the audience's warmth of Chicagoans' love and respect for him and made his way back to the stage.

Buddy Guy. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

He then played the guitar with a drumstick segueing into "Take Me to the River", "Keep These Blues Alive", and the divorce lament "It's Cheaper to Keep Her." He invited his son Freddie Guy to the stage with Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks. Then Billy Branch and Shemekia Copeland joined him on stage for a fire hot jam. Copeland's powerful voice is made for a venue like the Pritzker Pavilion. She sounded even better than at the Ramova on opening night. Buddy threw guitar picks to excited fans with the inscription, "Blues Musicians Don't Retire". It was a fitting end to the festival with so many celebrations.

Forty years of the Chicago Blues Festival. A triple centennial of Dinah Washington, Jimmy Rogers, and Otis Spann are luminaries in the Blues and Rock music. Muddy Waters said, "The Blues had a baby, and they named it Rock and Roll". It was also the 20th anniversary of Millennium Park, which has become central to the arts and cultural scene in "Sweet Home Chicago". One more thing, I only heard that song once. There is so much more to the Blues. Take the time to listen to some real Blues from the titans who built it.

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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.