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Chicago’s blues musicians, clubs hit hard by pandemic: ‘There’s gonna be a lot of songs to come from this’

Blues Fest usually brings a bump in revenue to clubs like Kingston Mines and artists like Donald Kinsey. Now that it’s been canceled, Chicago’s music scene is struggling.

Wayne Baker Brooks, the son of blues legend Lonnie Brooks, had a big summer of touring ahead when the COVID-19 pandemic all but wiped that out.
Alain Boucly

Blues guitarist Wayne Baker Brooks had major plans for his 50th birthday.

He had a May 3 gig at City Winery lined up where he planned on jamming with some of Chicago’s blues luminaries.

The coronavirus pandemic has all but wiped that out — indefinitely.

And last week, the city canceled the 37th annual Chicago Blues Fest, which was scheduled for June 5-7 — an announcement that sounded like a death knell to many of the city’s blues artists.

“I’m grateful to be turning 50, but I’m so sad about me not being able to ring it in like it was planned,” said Brooks. “Man, this is horrible. … And we definitely got the blues right now; everybody in the world got the blues right now.”

Brooks, the son of blues legend Lonnie Brooks, had a big summer of touring ahead. Like other Chicago area artists in the genre, he wants to keep the blues alive. Over the years, he’s performed with the likes of Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Bo Diddley, Taj Mahal and Otis Clay.

“Every single day, I’m getting a cancellation and it’s very disheartening,” said Brooks. “This is my main source of income, which is live touring.

“But for the most part, I have no income coming in. … So, as a musician, I’m definitely sick and I’m in a boat that is sinking.”

Blues guitarist Joanna Connor, a full-time musician for almost four decades, has done a series of online concerts and Q&A sessions since the pandemic took all of her gigs away.

“It’s been a good life but it’s not like I had piles of money put away; I was kind of living gig to gig,” said Connor. “I just made a record and that’s been put on hold, and so everything’s kind of suspended at this point, you know.

“I’m getting like 12,000 views in a few days, so I think it’s speaking to people who get the realness of the music because we’re in a situation.”

Gary, Indiana, blues singer and guitarist Donald Kinsey, an original member of The Wailers — reggae singer Bob Marley’s band — says blues musicians will continue to roll with the punches because the genre often documents when people are down on their luck.

“One thing for sure, there’s gonna be a lot of songs to come from this,” said Kinsey. “That’s what we do with songwriters and musicians and so, you know, we look forward to being able to get back out and do what we do: traveling and move people’s spirits.”

Gary, Indiana blues singer and guitarist Donald Kinsey, an original member of The Wailers — reggae singer Bob Marley’s band — says a lot of songs will come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cathy Comforti

Some of the venues where many of the city’s blues artists plied their trade continue to do fundraisers. A GoFundMe account for Kingston Mines says the famed Lincoln Park club might close for good without more cash, while Logan Square’s Rosa’s Lounge is providing a platform for artists to perform online videos and solicit donations through its Facebook fan page.

Blues Fest usually brings a bump in revenue — but not this summer.

“The only revenue I can generate is when you [patrons] come to us; it’s 100 percent of our revenue, “ said Tony Mangiullo, Rosa’s owner, describing the business he’s lost since Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. “After this [COVID-19 pandemic], it’s not going to be the same. ... We are the ones who’s gonna take the risk; we are used to that. And we are the ones who have to be creative. ... People will be hesitant.”

Other venues have made the pivot to keep their cash flow going by opening up their spaces to community organizations who need areas to operate.

The Quarry, a South Shore-based venue that hosts live blues and jazz sets, has allowed Sweet Potato Patch, an organization that delivers healthy meals to Chicagoans who live in food deserts, to prepare meals at the venue while allowing community members to come in to receive equipment such as N95 face masks amid the pandemic.

Yvette Moyo, The Quarry’s CEO, says the venue wants to hand out meals for local blues artists who lost their ability to earn due to the pandemic.

“While we’re not doing entertainment and while we worry a lot about artists, we are making good use of our venue,” said Moyo. “They had a hustle lifestyle; it would be great if we could provide free meals to the artists that we were supporting in the past.”

Bruce Iglauer, president and founder of Alligator Records, which includes Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Shemekia Copeland among the artists on its roster, has seen how the pandemic continues to crush gig workers like his artists.

“Until they either have a vaccine or they know that people become immune after having the illness, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to return to anything like the old normal,” said Iglauer. “So I’m concerned about the future for performing — not just the immediate future, but the long-term future.”