Toronzo Cannon, Li’l Ed and the Blues Imperials, John Primer headline Winter Blues Festival
Arlington Heights’ Hey Nonny hosts a weekend of music, film screening and more.
Chicago’s “winter blues” takes on a positive spin this weekend as Arlington Heights’ boutique music club Hey Nonny hosts the area’s only indoor blues festival.
With programming scheduled Jan. 31 through Feb. 2, the Winter Blues Summit will feature performances from brothers Jimmy and Syl Johnson (the latter, an upcoming Blues Hall of Fame inductee), Kinsey Report, Toronzo Cannon, Li’l Ed and the Blues Imperials, Joanna Connor, John Primer and more than a dozen other Chicago greats. In addition to Hey Nonny, the club will use its interconnected access to the Metropolis Theatre’s varied spaces to provide four stages without ever having to take a step outside.
WINTER BLUES SUMMIT
When: 6 p.m. Jan. 31; 10 a.m. Feb. 1-2
Where: Hey Nonny, 10 S. Vail Ave., Arlington Heights
Tickets: $175 for 3-day pass; $60 each for Friday and Sunday; $120 for Saturday only
Pass holders will also get entrance into two exclusive Blues Brunches Saturday and Sunday as well as a screening of “Sidemen: Long Road to Glory” with director Scott D. Rosenbaum preceded by a panel discussion with some legendary Chicago sidemen, including Bob Stroger, Rico McFarland, Donald Kinsey, Marty Sammon, and Billy Flynn who have toured and recorded with the likes of Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Bob Marley.
“If you’re going to host a festival, there needs to be an opportunity to do different kinds of programming, I really value that,” says Hey Nonny co-owner Chip Brooks. “We wanted to give people an experience that would be memorable. We figured there’s a lot going on in the summer, but not that much in the winter, and we had this unique set of indoor spaces that can hold a festival, which I’ve been wanting to try to do since we opened the venue.”
Brooks, a former lawyer and part-time musician, opened the suburban music venue 16 months ago with business partner Chris Dungan over a “mutual interest” in concert experiences.
“We’d get together to hear music in all the venues in Chicago, but from Arlington Heights it’s a long drive to get to Evanston to go to SPACE or to go to Schuba’s,” says Brooks. “Our goal was to see if we could develop what we thought was a cool music venue in the ‘burbs and see if we could make it a high-level place that would be on a level with those venues we love in Chicago. If you look on our wall, we have pictures of our favorite Chicago music venues to remind us this is what we are trying to accomplish.”
Over the past year, Hey Nonny has enjoyed a range of successful bookings from Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin to Miles Nielsen and The Rusted Hearts, but their blues shows have always been highlights and often sold-out affairs. “We’ve tried to program all different kinds of music and present a large variety. One of the things that has worked is blues,” says Brooks. “We’ve had a good time with it and gotten to know a lot of the blues players in Chicago and the people in that community. So, we thought, since the greatest blues talent in the world is right here in Chicago, why not put on a winter festival.”
One such player Brooks has grown close to is Toronzo Cannon who has previously sold out two Hey Nonny performances and will help close out Saturday night at the Winter Blues Summit.
“Everybody has a role in keeping the blues alive, from the artists, the guys that run the venues, the bookers, the audience, everyone has a part,” says Cannon, whose albums on the local Alligator Records imprint have been nominated for Blues Music Awards and have gotten him placements on the annual Chicago Blues Festival as well as stages all over the world. “Chip is such a great guy and is furthering the blues in the fact that he has a venue in Arlington Heights and is bringing blues to that area,” he adds. “Some people might not want to travel all the way to Chicago to see blues acts, so we bring them the blues.”
Cannon, who promises some very special surprises for his late-night set, also loves playing the Hey Nonny stage for its intimate draw. “The stage is close to the people; most of my music and my songs that I write are story-oriented so it feels kind of like a little congregation as if we’re in church, and I can talk to the audience.”
A CTA bus driver by day and blues man by night, Cannon has an interesting perspective on daily “blues” that goes into his songs.
“It’s hard to make a living by just being a musician. It’s a situation of doing what I got to do to do what I want to do,” he says. “But I try not to write from the perspective of ‘my woman left me’ sort of thing. I see things that are very raw, from living conditions and people that can’t pay fare to get on the bus, I hear their stories. I see the yellow tape. I’ve seen robberies while driving the bus. I hear ambulances and police sirens all day. To the untrained ear they might not hear that but that’s how I write my stories. I see stories everywhere.”
Cannon himself grew up on the south side near the Robert Taylor homes and former Theresa’s Lounge blues club, and he unleashes a lot of his close-up experiences in his new album, “The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp” like the song “Insurance,” a funny take on a serious matter of the millions of uninsured in America or “The Silence of My Friends” that was inspired by the famous Martin Luther King, Jr. speech.
“But everything is not about being downtrodden,” he cautions. “The will of the blues artist is to find that spark of hope in your music, at least that’s how I try to write. And as a Chicagoan, I feel a duty to keep the legacy of the blues alive and legends like Muddy Waters and Elmore James, all those guys that came from down south and landed here in Chicago and created a whole different sound. I feel it’s a duty for me as a young blues artist—a young pup at 51 years of age—to keep that tradition alive with my own stories and my own experiences. I think if you calculate all the years that the guys on this particular festival have been playing, in total you might have over 386 years up there, and hopefully the blues continues for that many years more.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.