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LIVE REVIEW -- Blues on the Fox 2016
GLT blues radio

Blues on the Fox

20th Anniversary Festival

June 17-18, 2016

RiverEdge Park, Aurora, IL

River Edge Park crane shot by Roman
RiverEdge Park
photo: Roman Sobus

By Linda Cain

Twenty years ago, the ambitious Fox Valley Blues Society, a small group of volunteers who love the blues, staged the first Blues on the Fox Festival in 1996. The free blues festival initially featured two stages at either end of Galena Street that served as a bridge over the Fox River. The urban setting for the blues was picture perfect, with the stages surrounded by historic buildings along the river with the raised railroad train tracks that served as a backdrop. One of those classic buildings, looming in the distance, is the Leland Hotel, where blues history was made in the 1930s when it was home to the RCA and Bluebird Record labels and recording studio that put out 78s by the likes of Tampa Red, Sonny Boy Williamson (the first), Big Joe Williams, Yank Rachell and others.

Over the years, attendance numbers for Blues on The Fox skyrocketed, with fans coming from far distances see major acts like Los Lobos (in 2009); there was scarcely room to move on that bridge, much less have space for your lawn chairs. Plus the asphalt, concrete and lack of shade made it hot as an oven.

With the demise of the blues society, the city of Aurora took over the fest, relocating it to a more pastoral setting – a spacious, empty lot alongside the river with plenty of room for food booths and vendors.  It was a wise decision because it attracted blues fans from Europe and Japan who came to Illinois for the 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 was becoming famous internationally for hosting BOTF.

Meanwhile plans were made to build a permanent outdoor festival park on the opposite side of the river and Aurora’s Civic Center Authority, which operates the historic Paramount Theater, took over the management and programming of the new concert park. The idyllic RiverEdge Park, 360 N. Broadway, across from the Metra station,  made its debut in 2013 and has been the new home for Blues on The Fox, along with other major concert performances of all genres – from Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson to The Hollywood Vampires with Alice Cooper, Joe Perry & Johnny Depp this summer.

To celebrate its 20th Anniversary, Blues on the Fox went all out and booked top, world famous talent for its headliners both nights: On Friday Marcia Ball and Robert Cray kicked off the weekend, while Saturday’s all day event featured headliners Tedeschi Trucks Band and Los Lobos with afternoon sets by Larry McCray Band and Leland. Needless to say, the fest is no longer free. In recent years, tickets were only $10. This year, the price for Friday was $20 and Saturday’s event was $40 (an early bird discount was offered until June 1). Thankfully the weather cooperated and it didn’t rain at all for the first time in years, thus assuring that music fans would pack the park (capacity 8,000 plus); which they did on Saturday night.


Marcia Ball by Dianne
Marcia Ball
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Alligator Recording artist Marcia Ball brought her always popular piano-pounding party-starting style of blues, R&B, and swampy soul, from Texas and Louisiana, to Aurora. Marcia and the band got everyone in the festival mood from the get go. The long tall lady treated fans to songs from her acclaimed recent release Tattooed Lady & The Alligator Man and more.

Robert Cray by Dianne
Robert Cray
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

Modern blues icon Robert Cray delivered a soul satisfying set that surveyed his hit-filled career that dates back to the blues revival in the 1980s when Young Bob burst on the scene with “Smokin’ Gun.” The sultry-voiced guitar slinger captivated the crowd with catchy songs from his latest CD Nothin’ But Love on the Provogue/Mascot label.



Mae Koen
Mae Koen
photo: Jennifer Noble

The band Leland is named after the afore-mentioned historic building in downtown Aurora where pre-War blues titans waxed hundreds of sides for the RCA and Bluebird labels. Inspired by Tampa Red and other artists who recorded on the top floor of the Leland Hotel, guitarist and band leader Scott Tipping (known for his Americana groups Cornmeal and Magic Box) decided to  form the band Leland and record a tribute to the great blues men who were part of Aurora’s musical heritage.

So it was surprising to hear the band kick off its set with a rousing Chuck Berry style rock’n’roll song. The next tune also rocked out. None of the songs in Leland’s 15 song set were in the pre-War Delta blues style. Instead, Leland served up post-war Chicago blues from the ‘50s and ‘60s and had a few surprises up their sleeves for us.

The band won over blues fans with a nice rendition of Billy Boy Arnold’s classic “Come Back Baby I Wish You Would.” Guest harmonica player Rick Sherry did Mr. Arnold proud with his impressive solos. Leland covered Magic Sam with a mid-tempo ballad “Give Me Time, I’m Gonna Make You Mine” that was reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s style.

After four numbers with Scott Tipping on guitar and vocals, Matt Thompson on bass, Chuck Lacy on drums, Scott Stevenson on keys, Dave Nelson on slide guitar and Rick Sherry blowing harp, Leland brought out the first surprise: Mae Koen.

At age 15, Mae sang backup for Willie Dixon in the ‘60s and is currently an in-demand session singer. She totally knocked us out with her great big, beautiful voice on the driving “Railroad Blues.” Mae took it down a notch for “Stormy Monday” which she started out slowly and then built to a wail while Tipping played a blazing guitar solo. The crowd cheered and shouted approval. Stevenson pounded the 88s as Mae belted out a Big Joe Turner tune for her last number. Lord have mercy, this lady can sang!

Stevenson was again featured on the organ groovin’ away for the Booker T & the MGs instrumental “Hip Hug Her” as well as a funky, rocking version of Louis Jordan’s “Outskirts of Town.”

Surprise #2 was next: singer Mick Ducker -- a soulful blues/R&B singer with a voice as smooth, warm and rich as melted butter. Ducker delighted us with the folksy “I Got A Woman Named Honey Bee in Jackson, Tennessee.” He followed with a set of famous covers that he put his own spin on: Etta James’ “Feel Like Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home,” Junior Wells’ “Snatch It Back And Hold It,” and finally the deep blues of Freddie King’s “Same Old Blues.” The audience gave it up for Mick with a huge round of applause as he exited.

After a couple more numbers, a re-worked Robert Nighthawk cover and an upbeat rocker, Mae Koen was called back for the final song -- a stomp-a-hole-in-da-floor version of -- “Wang Dang Doodle,” which got folks dancing and  joyously singing along.

Scott Tipping must have impressed Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas with his set. He ended up playing guitar with them at FitzGerald’s American Music Festival over the July 4th weekend in Berwyn along with a cast of local all-stars!


Larry McCray

Larry McCray & Kerry Clark
Larry McCray & Kerry Clark
photo: Jennifer Noble

The afternoon heat was intense, but not as hot as the Larry McCray Band was! From the first note, the Michigan blues guitar master and his superb band grabbed the sweltering audience’s attention. They opened with “Run” fueled by a thumping bass; Larry’s clear, strong voice and his perfect guitar notes spoke to us, along with some sweet harmonies. 

Throughout the band’s 13-song set, the bandleader/singer/lead guitarist varied the pace by alternating between scorching blues rock to melodic soul. “Don’t Need No Woman” featured three-part harmonies with soulful organ swirls by female keyboardist Clever Matoska.

The Larry McCray band displayed its prowess on the sorrowful, driving blues of “Big Black Hole” as well as a super funky New Orleans style number, complete with punchy cowbell and chickey wah wah guitar. On the breezy “Smooth Sailing” McCray burst into a solo filled with a flurry of melodic notes that was so fantastic that even the sweat-soaked audience mustered the energy to cheer and whistle its approval.  “Love Hurt So Bad,” featured a tortured, string bending solo that also drew cheers.

McCray switched guitars for a Southern rock song that featured both his and Ari Teitel’s guitars playing a rousing Allman Brothers type jam, that got the crowd groovin’.

For the ninth song, Kevin Rogers was called up to add his blues harp talents to the mix. McCray noted that Kevin was an original member of the Blues on the Fox organizers committee, who had moved to Hawaii. Rogers’ harp wailed as McCray belted out “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.”  The two guitarists jammed away to cheers and McCray’s vocals were echoed by Rogers’ soaring blues harp notes, including some roof raising high Cs! The fans cheered them on.

Song number 12 was the one we were waiting for, “Soul Shine,” McCray’s super soulful, gospel-inspired rendition of the Warren Haynes/ Govt. Mule tune. McCray just poured his heart into it, a positive message for these troubled times, with his passionate vocals and emotion-packed guitar, as we sang along on the chorus.

For the final number, McCray & Co. took it up several notches and dished up a killer R&B instrumental with high energy funky beats and wah-wah infused, monster guitar work that brought to mind Curtis Mayfield and the Isley Brothers.

Larry McCray and his five-piece band: Kerry Clark (bass), brother Steve McCray (drums), Ari Teitel (guitar) and Clever Matoska (keys) -- gifted us with a breathtaking 90-minute show that set the pace for what was to come.


Los Lobos

Cesar Rosas
Cesar Rosas
photo: Jennifer Noble

Will the wolf survive? That was the musical question first asked by that lil’ ol’ band from East L.A. The answer is a resounding YES, 43 years after forming in 1973. This musical wolf pack has survived and thrived thanks to its diverse repertoire, stellar musicianship and ability to please a wide variety of audiences.

Their debut hit “Will The Wolf Survive” was a catchy, poignant folksy rock song. Los Lobos moved into avante garde territory with their 1992 concept album Keiko. Yet they always remained rooted in their beginnings and they continued to play Mexican folk music that encompasses cumbia, Tex Mex and norteno. And they could always play some deep down blues, and butt-kickin’ rock’n’roll as well. Whenever on a festival bill, the Los Lobos bandleaders love to jam with whomever they are sharing the bill with. So it’s not surprising to see the band continue to evolve into one helluva  groovin’ jam band.

On this early evening in Aurora, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Los Lobos treated us to an outstanding show that gave us a taste of each era in its 40 year musical history.

The bluesy “’Bout to Lose my Mind,” segued into several rockin’ numbers: “Shakin’ It” and “Evangeline” that had us boppin’.

David Hidalgo sang en Espanol and played a fiery guitar solo on the fifth song. Next was “Mi Corazon,” which he described as “Spanish tropical blues”, a cumbia style tune with cowbell accents and a sax solo by longtime bandmate, bearded Steve Berlin.

Song number seven took us back to the beginning with “Will The Wolf Survive?” which elicited vast cheers from the massive crowd, that by now had filled in every inch of open space in front of the stage, and spilled into the back section of lawn chairs.

The next song “Behind The Gates of Gold” sounded like early Grateful Dead with its loping rhythm and countryish guitar licks, plus Steve Berlin on keyboards.

Los Lobos kicked it up a couple notches for a rock’n’roll number that would fit perfectly in The Blasters repertoire.

“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” began with a funky, War-like intro, as the crowd sang along “wherever he laid his hat was his home.” That tune segued into “Why Don’t You Let Me Go,” a plea from Hidalgo to his soon-to-be-ex-lover. That song quickly morphed into “Crossroads” on which Hidalgo played some Cream-like bluesy guitar, to cheers.

A cowbell introduced the favorite “Keiko” as Hidalgo strapped on his accordion to play the haunting intro to this spooky, swampy tune under a “lavender moon”. Again, the song was shortened to make way for a New Orleans-influenced version of “Don’t  Want To Let You Go,” that was met with huge cheers.

David Hidalgo
David Hidalgo
photo: Jennifer Noble

A bouncy Mexican style polka was next. One Polish-American audience member was so excited that he started dancing wildly in the aisle, asking if anyone who knew how to polka would join him. He found a young lady to dance with and was having a blast, until he was kicked out of the space that was used for carting supplies and garbage cans across the festival grounds.

Hidalgo kept the accordion strapped on for a couple more numbers, an early R&B tune that evolved into another Mexican folk song sung in Spanish.

A thumpin’ Bo Diddley beat signaled a song that Dead Heads know and love: the jam band version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” that features the crowd chanting the chorus back to the band. Los Lobos continued its homage to the Grateful Dead with a bouncy version of “Bertha,” which they recorded for a Dead tribute CD titled Deadicated, back in 1991 that helped raise funds to save rain forests.

Hidalgo played some Garcia-worthy licks as the crowd surged forward. The band left the stage and the crowd gave them an ovation, cheering for more after a thrilling 1 hour and 18 minutes set.

The band returned to encore, declaring: “Thank you! Chicago is our home away from home.” They launched into “Don’t Worry Baby,” a shortened version that led into “La Bamba” that morphed into “Good Lovin’” (by the Young Rascals, and The Dead) and back into “La Bamba for the grand finale.

Los Lobos would be a hard act to follow, but the headliner of the fest was more than up to the task.


Tedeschi Trucks Band

Derek Trucks & SusanTedeschi by Jennifer Noble
photo: Jennifer Noble

Tedeschi Trucks Band is the 21st Century edition of: Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Delaney & Bonnie (a one-time musical married couple) and Derek & The Dominos (a.k.a. Derek Trucks’ namesake). Guitarist Derek Trucks (formerly of the Allman Brothers Band and the nephew of late AB drummer Butch Trucks) and his wife Susan Tedeschi (lead singer, guitarist) both enjoyed solo careers before and during their married life. So it only made sense for them to join forces and form a band together, which they did in 2010. And what a band they have! The 12-piece ensemble is the ultimate jam band that seamlessly fuses blues, gospel, jazz, R&B and rock into a joyous musical experience.

Smoke pots and fog clouded the RiverEdge Park stage as the Tedeschi Trucks Band launched into “Rise Up” led by Tedeschi’s soaring, gospel-infused vocals. On stage were three backup singers (Mike Mattison, Mark Rivers and Alecia Chakour), three horn players (Kebbi Williams on sax, Elizabeth Lea on trombone, Ephraim Owens on trumpet), two drummers (J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell also on percussion), keyboardist/flutist Kofi Burbridge, bassist Tim Lefebvre and Trucks & Tedeschi on guitars.

Susan Tedeschi
Susan Tedeschi
photo: Jennifer Noble

A cheerful, upbeat, funky tune, “Don’t Know What it Means,” featuring Susan on vocals was next; it ended with a wild, honkin’ sax solo by Kebbi Williams, while the band kept groovin’.  The players smoothly shifted gears right into “The Letter,” the 1960s Box Tops hit served up Joe Cocker style.  Derek brought out David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, for a collaboration on Derek & The Dominos’ “Keep On Growing,” which had the crowd cheering for the scorching guitar solos from Trucks and his guest. The jam ebbed and flowed as Trucks switched to slide guitar for the big finish.

Hidalgo remained on stage, but the backup singers and horn players left their places, as it was time for some stripped down blues for the Elmore James classic “The Sky Is Cryin’” featuring the gutsy vocals of Teschechi.  After Hidalgo delivered some impressive blue notes, it was Susan’s turn to solo on guitar; she displayed her own distinctive, emotion-packed blues style, not unlike that of Ronnie Earl, who knows how to make each note count. The fans roared their approval.

Derek Trucks
Derek Trucks
photo: Jennifer Noble

The full band returned for the next song, a jazzy cosmic jam featuring Kofi Burbridge’s flute and keyboard solos along with Derek’s spacey guitar forays. It ended with a furious duel between the drummers which really got the crowd going.

After a couple of new songs that featured extensive jamming, the majority of the band departed the stage, leaving singers Susan (on guitar), Mike Mattison and Alecia Chakour to raise their heavenly voices to harmonize on a sad country tune: George Jones’ “Blue Must Be the Color of the Blues.”

The band returned for a funky cover of R&B chestnut “I Pity The Fool.” Susan belted it out, backed by the majestic horn section, as she soloed on guitar.

The final number featured a trumpet solo done in a frantic Miles Davis modern jazz mode, along with drum and keyboard solos, leading up to Susan and the chorus joining in on soaring harmonies for “Let Me Get By,” the title track of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s new CD. The breezy tune, accented by punchy horns, built to a climactic finish with Derek’s dazzling guitar fireworks; this enthralled the massive crowd of fans that were packed in front of the stage.

At 10:33 pm the band exited, but soon returned for a soulful rendition of Ray Charles’ boozy standard “Let’s Go Get Stoned” that had Susan, Mike and Alicia trading verses while Kofi’s organ wailed. It was the perfect ending to a hot, sweaty afternoon in the sun and a perfect summer night for the blues. For the first time in years, Blues on the Fox didn’t get rained out. Happy 20th Anniversary!


About the author: Linda Cain is the managing editor/founder of Chicago Blues Guide. She is a longtime music journalist who has contributed to major publications both local and international. She has interviewed a variety of musicians including Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Gatemouth Brown, Stephane Grappelli, Gordon Lightfoot and The Eagles. She also worked as a publicist for many musicians and music venues, including Blue Chicago, and has written liner notes for blues CDs.



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