Summertime is a celebration of the blues. Many cities showcase their home-grown talent while others import players from all over the country. These blues festivals occur from late spring to early fall, and provide perhaps the best way to learn and deepen an appreciation of the music.
Each year the blues seems to make ever-greater inroads into American popular culture. Television commercials, movie scores, even sitcom soundtracks routinely -- if unconsciously -- clone the piercing slide guitar chords and haunting harmonica lines that have long been the fiery substance of traditional blues music. This African-American art form has been so influential on American music that ever since the very first jazz sounds in New Orleans, the first country bands in Atlanta and the first rock-and-roll combos in Memphis, blues has been a major musical ingredient.
In fact, the blues has for so long been the pepper -- if not the meat -- in the American musical stew, that one wonders how it has remained hidden while casting such enormous, fixed shadows. Mega-stars in rock-and-roll, country and jazz have always made extensive use of this music; yet, a sad majority of authentic blues masters have received their due in the larger musical marketplace only by the reflection of their musical satellites. It took The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top, for example, to make viable legends of America's only three multiple Grammy-winning black blues artists: Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Buddy Guy.
It has always been so. During the '20's and '30's, the first golden age of blues recording, the music was merchandised and segregated as "race" records; in the late '40's and '50's, as "rhythm-and-blues." For the most part, the blues recording artists had been regional stars who toured communities much like their own. The music was made for and by Black America.
Since the 1960's, however, an increasing number of white musicians, historians and fans have shown a marked interest in the sounds of blues past and present. Albums of reissued records have met with far-reaching commercial success (led by the Grammy-winning CBS box set of Robert Johnson's work), and more and more players of all colors and nationalities have strived to emulate the work of their guitar-wielding, harp-blowing heroes.
The important step has yet to be taken, however. The bluesman has always existed in black communities throughout the country -- playing the local jukejoints, picnics, fairs, Elks Halls, as well as major venues such as the Regal and Apollo theaters. And long-time blues fans who travel to the music -- to centers like Chicago and the Mississippi Delta -- have enjoyed these artists on their home turf. (These blues travelers are a serious band of cognoscenti who take this music as some take communion. It's serious business.) However, most of the active bluesmen are not able to reach the average listener. The blues festival has gone a long way to correct the situation. One trip to one of these festivals can connect you to many of the finest and most exciting blues artists in the world.
Summertime is a celebration of the blues. Many cities showcase their homegrown talent while others import players from all over the country. These blues festivals occur from late spring to early fall, and provide perhaps the best way to learn and deepen an appreciation of this music. Some festivals incorporate an educational component of lectures, movies and photographic exhibits, while others rely solely on the music.
Here is a roundup of a few of the most significant events.
* The 7th Annual RiverBlues Festival: May 21-22; Philadelphia; the Great Plaza at Penn's Landing; Free; (215) 636-1666.
Poised on the banks of the Delaware, the RiverBlues Festival presents two days of non-stop music on four stages. Saturday features Chicago blues legend Otis Rush, arguably the world's greatest blues guitarist and singer. This appearance correlates with the release of Otis' first studio recording in almost 20 years, and his first for Mercury Records. Also on Saturday is Texan Sonny Rhodes, one of the few blues steel guitar players on the scene. Also appearing are the exciting Holmes Brothers and the Robert Cray Band. Sunday's show features the great harmonicist/singer Junior Wells as well as the fabulous West Coast pianist/singer Charles Brown. Also on Sunday: Marva Wright, Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials and others. Fans of New Orleans music might inquire about the USAir Jambalaya Jam, May 28-29 at the same location.
* The 11th Annual Chicago Blues Festival: June 3-5; Grant Park, Chicago; Free; (312) 744-3370.
Mayor Richard M. Daley proudly proclaims the great city of Chicago "Blues Capital of the World"; and, indeed, since Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red began playing and recording there in the 1920's, there has existed a tradition that still resonates today -- three-quarters of a century later. Chicago is synonymous with quintessential urban blues.