Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
BLUES ON THE FOX 2015
RiverEdge Park, Aurora, IL
By Linda Cain
Photos: Jennifer Noble, Roman Sobus
Photos: Jennifer Noble, Roman Sobus
The blues comes in many shades and hues. From Delta blues to Chicago style to soul blues to blues-rock and everything in between, blues is a root music that resonates with fans all over the world.
For the past 19 years, Aurora’s Blues on the Fox Festival (BOTF) has brought diverse, quality acts to perform for both locals as well as devotees from across the pond. You can count on attendance from foreigners who came to Illinois for Chicago Blues Festival (held in Grant Park the week before BOTF) and stayed an extra week for Aurora’s blues fest. Next to Wayne’s World, Aurora is becoming famous internationally for hosting BOTF.
This year’s lineup was perhaps the fest’s most nontraditional featuring innovative, boundary-pushing bands: Otis Taylor, Trombone Shorty, Royal Southern Brotherhood and North Mississippi All Stars. Two acts, Mavis Staples and Moreland & Arbuckle, kept closer to the roots with their music. Here’s our review about these two days of blues magic that kicked off summer 2015.
Friday, June 19
Evening show s
ROYAL SOUTHERN BROTHERHOOD
Don’t let the name confuse you; this is Cyril Neville’s baby now. The percussionist, singer and songwriter from The Neville Brothers and The Meters started RSB as a side project with Mike Zito in 2011 as a way to expand his original Southern roots music, performing with like-minded mega talent. Although RSB has rotated through different guitarists (including Devon Allman and Zito) the core trio remains as a solid floor of New Orleans funk, soul, blues, rock and R&B. As ever, Cyril is upfront singing and playing timbales and various percussion pieces, backed by the stupendous rhythm section of Charlie Wooten on bass and drummer Yonrico Scott. (Google their bios; they have indeed performed with musical royalty). Atlanta’s Yonrico was in the Derek Trucks Band and performed with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder to name a few. Charlie hails from Louisiana and played with Bonerama and Zydefunk, among others.
The new guitarists are no peasants either. Nashville’s Bart Walker won the International Blues Music award in Memphis for best guitarist in 2012. His band won second place in the competition. From Austin, TX, Tyrone Vaughan is the son of Jimmie and the nephew of Stevie Ray. How’s that for Southern Royalty?
RSB kicked off with a funky Neville Brothers style of thumpin’ beat for a song from the band’s new CD, Don’t Look Back: The Muscle Shoals Sessions. “The Big Greasy” was about -- what else -- the town of New Orleans on a Saturday night. Bart Walker picked out some cascading Jerry Garcia style notes on his Gibson, later switching to a chickie wah wah pedal for some nice greezy effects to close out the celebratory tune.
The second number, was equally as funky as Cyril pounded the timbales and, in a clear, strong soulful voice, sang out the romantic poetic imagery on “Follow The Moonlight.” Charlie Wooton slapped his bass as he sidled up next to Bart, then Tyrone. The song ended with a definitive stomp.
The guitarists got a chance to show off their singing chops as they traded off on lead vocals and harmonized with each other for the Hendrix-y “I Wanna Be Free,” (from the new disc) on which each guitarist took a solo turn and the rhythm section crashed away like waves on the beach on this lengthy jammin’ tune that had the crowd cheering.
“Poor Boy” (also on the new CD) rolled out some hip shakin’ funky rhythms, with Tyrone on rapid fire rhythm guitar and sassy lead vocals, as he laid down some heavy wah-wah pedal guitar licks. Bart chimed in with a breathless, notes-a-flyin’ blues-rock solo.
Next up, Cyril grabbed his mic and headed to the front of the stage to get the audience to clap along for “Reach My Goal” a positive message song that he drove home as he shouted “Gotta reach my goal!” (another new song from the CD).
In a split second, the knife-sharp rhythm section segued into another new song, “She Hit Me Once,” featuring bouncy rhythms and Cyril belting it out. Once again, this super tight band stopped on a dime to end the tune.
Cyril paused to address the crowd and talk about the recent passing of two great blues legends. “When I met Sam McClain, I met the blues,” he declared. He then dedicated the next song to Mighty Sam and B.B. King.
RSB eased into a mid-tempo blues and Bart reeled off some powerful string bending notes on his Gibson, as Cyril belted out the classic “Sweet Little Angel.” Tyrone kicked out a string-tickling blues solo, playing up and down the neck and shredding in style -- a show-stopping tour-de-force. The crowd loved it! Charlie thumped his bass for an impressive solo as well. Bart displayed all manner of styles for his turn in the spotlight, from jazzy blue notes to sublime string bending into to rip-roaring electric blues-rock that elicited cheers. Cyril finished up with some stop-time verse and the crowd thanked them with a wild standing ovation! Clearly the fans were pleased to hear some heartfelt real deal blues.
RSB hit us with a lengthy set of irresistible funky, soulful R&B dance numbers that drew a bevy of dancers up to the front of the stage (yours truly included). At one point, Scott and Wooten wowed the crowd with mighty solos on drums and bass, respectively.
The band concluded with a New Orleansy version of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” on which Cyril included a rap about his family’s Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Wild Tchoupitoulas.
At age 66, Cyril may be the famous elder of the Brotherhood, but he is a generous leader that showcases his bandmates’ significant talents with plenty of solos. Still, he runs a tight ship, never letting the jamming get in the way of delivering a great song. As the bandleader, Cyril clearly brings the ensemble style sensibilities, showmanship and passion that he learned from the Neville Brothers to the RSB.
NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS
If you heard that the North Mississippi Allstars performed songs like -- “Sittin’ On Top of The World,” “My Babe,” “The Sweet Bye and Bye,” “Boll Weevil,” “You Got to Move,” “Amazing Grace,” “Shake What Your Mama Gave You,” “Po’ Black Maddie,” “Granny Does Your Dog Bite,” and “Cherry Red” -- then you might think that they played them in a style along the lines of how they sounded on their 2000 debut album Shake Hands With Shorty. But you would be wrong!
Friday night’s set was nothing like a stompin’ R.L. Burnside, backwoods, hill country “trance blues” jam. It was more like a techno dance club experience -- a bursting kaleidoscope of sounds, swirling lights and fog machine smoke with an incessant pulsating, throbbing beat that hit you right in the chest. Luther and Cody Dickenson, along with fill-in bass player Oteil Burbridge from the Allman Brothers and Derek Trucks Band (original bassist Chris Chew no longer tours with them), were the carnival barkers for this festive atmosphere that took the blues from its deep roots and sent it flying into deep space. The younger members of the crowd (who could perhaps tolerate the loudness) surged to the front of the stage to jump up and down to the unrelenting beats.
The multi-talented brothers began their set with Cody behind the drums and Luther playing guitar. But throughout the night, they moved about the stage, traded places, and performed on a dizzying array of instruments, producing an equally dizzying blast of diverse sounds.
For instance, Cody grabbed his washboard and came to the front of the stage. This was no ordinary laundry device; it was a rigged-up electric model, which Cody attacked with pointed steel finger picks, and presumably effects pedals, to produce all manner of amusing reverberations, as the crowd cheered him on. Cody chanted in a North Mississippi hip hop style and the crowd sang back, as the band played swirling circus-rock music behind him.
Cody then grabbed a guitar and played an Allman Brothers style, twin guitar duet with his brother. Bassist Oteil switched to the drums for this Southern rock jam, which the overall audience cheered for the loudest.
Cody went back to playing drums as Luther performed on slide guitar, sounding a bit like Duane Allman, playing and singing in the mellower traditional blues style on “Let It Roll.” The Allstars don’t stay laid back for long, as the rhythm section kicked it into higher gear for a gospel march beat; Luther played a Robert Randolph influenced sacred steel guitar slidin’ frenzy that got the crowd on its collective feet dancing.
Luther slowed things down again for the next song which he dedicated to “Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Elmore James.” He played slide sublimely and made his guitar sound like it was talking. Clearly he was sharing a conversation with us. The crowd cheered his virtuosity.
The mood changed again as Oteil took a bass solo; this was followed by a jazzy bass and drum solo that meandered into Grateful Dead space rock territory for a trippy segment. Luther kicked in, shredding his guitar for a psychedelic solo. The band then joined in on a John Lee Hooker style boogie as Luther sang “My Eagle Bird.”
The Allstars then converted themselves in to a marching band as Cody and Luther strapped on drums and sashayed into the crowd. Luther banged on a huge bass drum and Cody followed, beating the tom toms as the place went nuts.
Back up on stage, Cody asked the musical question: “Granny does your dog bite?” and his partners answered by playing some R.L. Burnside trance boogie which led into a medley of blues, folk and gospel styles all backed by the big beat. It was a jammin’ good finale that finished up at 10:30 p.m., as the fans screamed for more.
As evidenced by tonight’s show, North Mississippi Allstars have taken the term “jam band” to a new level. Once you unscrew the top from this musical Mason jar of sweetly fermented fruit, get ready for a burst of improvisational flavors you never before imagined. NMS are transforming their native hill country blues into an exciting modern sound, thus drawing in younger, more diverse audiences around the world.
Saturday, June 20
Afternoon & Evening show s
MORELAND & ARBUCKLE
Kansas natives Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle, plus drummer Kendall Newby, were a delightful act to open the festival’s second day. With sunny, blue skies above to greet the fans upon arrival, the trio welcomed us with a Bo Diddley beat. The trio’s rendition of “Mona” on cigar box guitar, harp and drums was just right for afternoon downhome blues. The band’s between-song chats to the crowd showed them to be charming, regular guy Midwesterners we could relate to.
For the next couple numbers, Moreland played bass notes on his cigar box axe that got our heads boppin’ to a John Lee Hooker style boogie. Arbuckle caressed our ears with his harmonica mastery as he played an instrumental version of a Little Walter song, accompanied by Moreland on a Les Paul -- a breezy upbeat shuffle. The harp blower slowed down, then quieted the band momentarily. The band then launched into a solid Chicago blues for “Too Many Women” and the fans stood to applaud their approval.
The trio knew they had us after that! The next couple songs were a departure, done up in catchy classic rock style -- tunes clearly designed for radio airplay. The songs were tasteful, not bombastic, and featured Arbuckle’s, smooth, spot-on singing and Moreland’s catchy guitar hooks.
For the rest of the show, it was back to the blues with songs that really got the fans pumped up: a song about whiskey and women featured Moreland again on the cigar box guitar, followed by a splendid rendition of Tom Waits’ “Heart Attack & Vine” that was rewarded with a standing ovation!
The classic “John Henry” was given a drivin’ blues boogie accented by Arbuckle’s thrilling harmonica trills. The drummer soloed and the band jammed; the crowd stood, clapped and cheered the chuggin’ rhythms and wailin’ harp that closed out this trio’s wonderful opening set. Moreland & Arbuckle were sent off with a well-deserved standing ovation.
Otis Taylor has been labeled as a blues iconoclast. But the enigmatic multi-talented musician from Boulder by way of Chicago (where he grew up), prefers his music to be categorized as trance blues. In fact, he has created an annual Trance Blues Festival held in Boulder, Colorado that features all ages and skill levels jamming together and creating musical diversity. Taylor’s new CD, Hey Joe Opus Red Meat, is on his new indie label Trance Blues Festival Records.
Yet, to define the sounds that Taylor creates as merely trance blues does him a disservice, as evidenced by his brilliant afternoon show that expanded and explored musical realms far beyond the limits of words and labels. Taylor was backed by violinist Anne Harris, special guest guitarist Mato Nanji from Indigenous, along with bassist Todd Edmunds and drummer Larry Thompson.
Taylor opened with “Blue Rain of Africa” from his My World Is Gone CD, which features Mato Nanji. His gruff and gritty voice conveyed the poetic, dreamlike lyrics that included images of the sacred white buffalo and the eagle. Anne Harris’ violin evoked the sound of a soaring bird, while Mato Nanji’s guitar growled.
The band moved easily into “The Heart Is A Muscle (Used for The Blues)” from Taylor’s new CD; the album is indeed an opus with movements built around the Jimi Hendrix classic “Hey Joe.” The rhythm section kept a steady heartbeat thump throughout the song, and Otis allowed his bandmates the room to jam while he chanted the lyrics repetitively. The band was really groovin’ when Otis suddenly gave them the signal and, boom, they stopped on a dime.
Otis declared: “I’m feeling wild!” and the band picked up the pace for “Knock It Down” a powerful social commentary. Lithe and athletic, Anne Harris frolicked about the stage like a sprite, decked out with a daisy wreath in her hair, playing her violin with passion.
The next number was given to Anne; backed by only bass and drums, she played the classic folk song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to cheers from the crowd.
Taylor introduced his next song, “Ten Million Slaves,” which was featured in the gangster film Public Enemies. The band’s rendition went from frenetic, to tranquil and back again. It was a perfect example of trance blues music.
Harris once again sweetened the mood with an old timey fiddle passage, reminiscent of the soundtrack used in Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Civil War. Again the crowd hailed her violin virtuosity.
In contrast, “Hey Joe,” conveyed a dramatic, ominous tone with a sinister sounding solo from guitarist Nanji. Taylor played an echoed, spacey guitar solo while Harris’ gentle, feminine violin contrasted the bandleader’s gruffness. The song soared into trippy Pink Floyd territory for a spell. They came back to earth as Harris danced, threw her bow into the air and high kicked.
Her tender violin transitioned into the “Red Meat” part of Taylor’s opus which was dramatic and orchestral. The band then segued back into “Hey Joe”, sung by Nanji this time. Harris played her violin while performing a back-bend as the crowd went wild. The band stopped as Taylor and Harris dueted, his space guitar and her sensual violin – in a thrust and parry musical dance. The bass and drums returned, and the band swirled back into the land of Pink Floyd. The trance jam segued into a tribal beat, led by Nanji’s lead guitar. Otis thanked the crowd and took a break.
Anne played an emotional “Amazing Grace,” much to the audience’s approval.
Otis returned with a harmonica, spun around to direct the band to play a Bo Didley hambone beat as he walked off stage and into the audience, many of whom followed him like a pied piper.
Back on stage, with the band gone, drummer Larry Thompson played a tour-de-force drum solo to cheers. Thompson signaled the band’s return with a tribal thump, as Harris writhed about the stage and Nanji played a rip-roaring guitar solo. Taylor moaned and sang “Girl Friend’s House,” about his woman leaving him for another woman (now that’s the blues). Taylor testified his woes, asked the crowd to put their hands in the air and beckoned: “Come close to me!” They obliged, clapping and dancing to the thunderous Native American style rhythms. Todd Edmunds played a groovin’ bass solo, followed by Nanji’s breakneck guitar solo, followed by a guitar duel between Nanji and Taylor.
Taylor sang “Talk About Freedom” as a way of getting the fans pumped up
for Mavis Staples. Taylor waved, thanked the cheering crowd as he walked
off stage, leaving us in awe of the spellbinding musical journey that he
and his stellar band had just taken us on.
Due to the threat of bad weather, Mavis Staples wasted no time and burst onto the stage, ready to stomp a hole in the floor. “Come Go With Me,” she urged, belting out the joyous song; in an instant, folks ran up to the stage to dance and clap along.
Mavis was backed by her longtime band of guitarist Rick Holmstrom, bassist Jeff Turmes and drummer Stephen Hodges, plus backup singers Danny Gerrard and Vicki Randle. The gospel staple, “Wade in the Water” was next, with the guitarist and bassist joining the two backup singers to add heavenly harmonies, as Mavis stepped to the front of the stage to testify and get down.
An announcement was made about ominous weather moving in; the helpful RiverEdge Park staff had passed out rain ponchos earlier in the day and it looked like we would need them in due time. But Mavis was geared up and there was no stopping her just yet.
When Holmstrom played the opening guitar riffs to the next tune, you could feel the anticipation; yes, Mavis is really going to sing Talking Heads’, “Slippery People,” a song that she and the Staple Singers covered so well in the 1980s! It is a tune that has not been included in her repertoire in recent years; hearing Mavis sing the verse: “Put away that gun. This part is simple,” took on far greater gravitas today in light of recent tragic headlines. And, of course, hearing Mavis’ authoritative voice telling it like it is, rather than David Byrne’s quirky singing, made the song more meaningful. The five-part harmonies that she sang along with her band simply soared, and she ended “Slippery People” with a hearty soul scream that got the fans rather revved up.
After a lesser known positive message song, “I Like The Things About Me,” Mavis told us to “Respect Yourself,” and this beloved Staples Singers hit got folks of all ages swaying and singing along.
The Staples’ civil rights anthem “Freedom Highway” brought moderate rain with it, but the crowd didn’t mind; they cheered on Mavis as she belted out her determination to never give up the cause. “Somebody say yeah!” she shouted. “Yeah!” we responded.
Gerrard sang the start of the next tune, and Mavis followed on the next verse. But the rain turned fierce and they were forced off the stage, much to everyone’s disappointment.
This is the second time that Mavis has performed for BOTF and was rained out! Sometimes Mother Nature just isn’t fair, even for a sanctified singer.
TROMBONE SHORTY & ORLEANS AVENUE
After less than an hour’s wait, the rain cleared up and happily, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue hit the stage with a monstrous Big Easy blast of brass, funk, colored lights and fog machine spectacle. Shorty played a lung busting solo on his trombone as the fans rushed to the front of the stage. The rain started and stopped repeatedly, taunting us, but the show went on for a total of three terrific, no-holds-barred songs by this dynamic sextet. But the weather turned for the worse and the power was cut for the band’s safety. The band bravely came to the front of the stage for one final unplugged song; a traditional NOLA parade marching song. After that, we were warned to head for our cars, a message met with boos. But they were right, and seconds later, we were pummeled with a hard driving rain that ended the night way too early, before 9 pm.
Next year, the festival will celebrate its 20th Anniversary and you know that is going to be very special. Start wishing for good weather now!
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