BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
It’s been a few years since Buddy Guy has headlined the Chicago Blues Festival, and his reemergence this weekend comes at a curious time for both him and the greater blues community still feeling the magnitude of losing B.B. King a few weeks ago.
CHICAGO BLUES FESTIVAL
When: 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., June 12-14
Where: Grant Park, 337 E. Randolph
“Before he passed I used to think, ‘my god there’s only two of us left from that ‘50s and ‘60s era,’” says Guy who recently returned from King’s services, which gave him pause to reflect about the past and future of the genre that has changed so drastically since the time when electric tracks by Howlin’ Wolf ruled AM radio and Chicago was the proverbial home of the blues. It was a reason Guy was attracted to move here from Louisiana in 1957 to follow the trail of masters like Muddy Waters, who along with Willie Dixon, will be the focus of a centennial tribute on the closing night of the fest, something Guy in particular is looking forward to.
“I remember when I was youngster first coming here looking up to those guys. There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to honor them,” says Guy who himself turns 79 next month. “Now I’m a senior citizen looking down hoping some young people will come along and carry it on.”
Guy laments the fact that the blues has lost popularity in recent years, which he attributes to dwindling exposure. “Most young kids are looking for role models, but they don’t hear a B.B. King or Muddy Waters now.”
There is hope though, he says, pointing to people like Gary Clark, Jr. (a mix of Guy and Hendrix who brings his blues rock to Lollapalooza this year) and Guy’s own protégé, 16-year-old Quinn Sullivan, who the guitarist met when he was seven and calls him “the most amazing young man I’ve seen yet at that age playing the blues.” Though there may be competition—just last week Guy made a trip to Indiana to give a music lesson to a 5-year-old prodigy he heard buzz over.
“It’s an honor to be still hanging around and be a part of whatever happens to blues music,” says Guy, who himself still makes headlines, winning a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy Foundation earlier this year and setting the record for audience attendance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in May. “That made me feel good to see we could draw that many people. I was surprised,” he says, in some ways hoping he can do the same at home at Blues Fest (Saturday, 8:05 p.m.) and after parties at his club Buddy Guy’s Legends that will feature Booker T. Jones and Billy Branch over the weekend. “I will always give it 110%. When I get to can’t do that anymore that’s when I will hang it up.”
5 More Acts To Check Out At Blues Fest:
Toronzo Cannon: The Bridgeport resident (and CTA bus driver) was immersed in the world of blues by hanging around Theresa’s Lounge. Today he’s one of Chicago’s new greats, inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013. (Sat., 5:30 p.m.)
Jarekus Singleton: The 30-year-old is part of the new class. A former rap artist who grew up on gospel, he infuses his Alligator Records debut with big licks, streetwise storytelling and a soulful voice. (Sat., 2:30 p.m.)
Shemekia Copeland: Just added to the lineup, the Grammy nominee is the daughter of Texas blues legend Johnny “Clyde” Copeland and brings a booming voice that has her referred to as “the next Aretha Franklin.”
Syl Johnson: Since the ‘50s Johnson has blurred the line between blues and soul with huge hits like “Take Me To The River” and the socio-political track “Is It Because I’m Black,” sampled by a score of R&B and hip-hop stars much to his chagrin. (Fri,. 8:25 p.m.)
Billy Branch: The Willie Dixon protégé is as much known for his blues stylings as his harmonica playing, featured on more than 150 recordings. A Blues Fest repeat most notably in 2007 when he was honored with a three-hour performance. (Sun., 5 p.m.)
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.