By Linda Cain
Photos: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
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Alligator's 50th Anniversary Celebration at Millennium Park
City celebrates Alligator’s legacy, but leaves Chicago Blues Fest’s future uncertain
It felt exhilarating to enter Millennium Park and sit beneath the gleaming tubular, ultra modern structure that hovers over the seats of the impressive Pritzker Pavilion stage; for the first time in two years, we would finally get to hear live blues music in this lovely outdoor setting on a beautiful summer night in the city of Chicago, world capitol of the blues.
The Chicago Blues Festival, the free three-day festival held each June -- that is the largest in the world and attracts fans from all over the globe -- had to be cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.
So it was with this exuberant joy that we anticipated the star-studded concert to pay tribute to the venerable Alligator Records, its artists, and its visionary leader Bruce Iglauer, who succeeded in turning a recording session with Hound Dog Taylor & the House Rockers in 1971 into a global goliath of the blues. After 50 years, Alligator remains the most influential independent blues & roots record label still in business today. Alligator’s story is an essential part of blues history; it includes late legendary artists like Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Luther Allison, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter and Lonnie Mack, to name a few. And Alligator continues to invest in the future of the blues by signing younger artists like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Selwyn Birchwood, Shemekia Copeland, Toronzo Cannon and more.
On this night, three Chicago-based bands with special guests (each playing 45-minute sets) were present to represent Alligator Records and Chicago blues:
Nick Moss Band w/ Jason Ricci and Wayne Baker Brooks
Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials w/ Billy Branch
The Cash Box Kings w/ Ken Saydak and Shemekia Copeland
The Nick Moss Band kicked things off with a stompin’ version of the title track of their debut Alligator release The High Cost of Low Living. Singer/songwriter Nick Moss -- an immensely talented, nimble and versatile “guitarist’s guitar player” who apprenticed with blues greats like Jimmy Rogers and Jimmy Dawkins -- led the band on this night to righteously serve up traditional Chicago blues in an ensemble style, along with some groovin’ jam band elements.
The ensemble included longtime drummer Patrick Seals and newest member Rodrigo Mantovani (who hails from Brazil) on electric and upright bass. Youngest member Taylor Streiff on keyboards rejoined the band on this special occasion. Streiff had to leave the band when the pandemic shut the music scene down, as did virtuoso harmonica player Dennis Gruenling, who lives on the West Coast. Happily harp monster Jason Ricci, who had just finished playing five nights and four days at The Big Blues Bender in Vegas, came to the rescue to add his Godzilla-like skills on the Mississippi saxophone to the NMB lineup.
Since signing with Alligator in 2018, the Nick Moss Band has gone on to win four Blues Music Awards, earning three of them in 2020, in connection with sophomore release Lucky Guy. Moss dedicated the title track “Lucky Guy” to his wife Kate Moss. The rhythm section of Seals and Mantovani came out swinging on this number as Moss played a blistering solo, no doubt inspired by his spouse who was sitting in the audience.
Moss introduced “Ugly Woman,” as a “love song,” even though the singer describes his bad-looking lover in grotesque detail. The playful upbeat, shuffle found Moss and Ricci standing shoulder to shoulder playing inspired solos to a cheering crowd.
Next up Ricci was featured on a slow blues burner; he played emotion-packed notes as the band played softly behind him. Rodrigo switched to electric bass and Moss let fly with some serious string bending on a kick-ass solo, as Seals pounded out the 6/8 beat to build up to an exciting crescendo.
The band then kicked into a rousing version of “312 Blood,” a tribute to Chicago, the blues and the city’s area code.
Moss then introduced special guest Wayne Baker Brooks, who took the stage to honor his late father -- and one of Alligator’s legendary artists -- Lonnie Brooks.
Wayne, or WBB for short, recalled that his dad enjoyed ‘60s TV shows like “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” WBB explained that he and brother Ronnie Baker Brooks (aka RBB) sometimes helped their Dad pen songs. “And this is one of them,” WBB said as he launched into “Bewitched” a solid upbeat blues rocker.
“She must be a witch/ To make me feel like this” WBB belted out the chorus and played his guitar with gusto, commanding the stage and very much reminding us of his illustrious parent.
WBB followed with Lonnie’s Grammy-nominated number “Cold Lonely Nights,” a blues classic. Wayne opened with a scorching solo and powerful vocals as he stepped to the front of the stage for all to see and hear his passionate rendition. He exited to cheers, but was called back to take a group bow with the Nick Moss Band, who were treated to a well-deserved standing ovation!
In between sets, Chicago’s outgoing Cultural Commission Mark Kelly, who recently announced his retirement from heading DCASE, used the downtime for announcements and a proclamation. Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer stood proudly on stage, as a slide show presented photos depicting the label’s storied history, steeped in the blues, while Kelly narrated. Kelly then read a proclamation from Mayor Lightfoot declaring today, Sept. 18, as “Bruce Iglauer Day” in Chicago. Previously, on June 18, the mayor proclaimed the day as “Alligator Records Day” in Chicago, the same day the label released the anniversary collection Alligator Records – 50 Years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music (a 2-vinyl LP or 3-CD set).
You can win your own copy of Alligator’s 3-CD set from Chicago Blues Guide by entering HERE
Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials is a band that has stood the test of time, together for 30 years! Lil’ Ed William's half-brother James “Pookie” Young on bass, Mike Garrett on second guitar and Kelly Littleton on drums form a perfect, rock solid unit that seamlessly support the always entertaining antics of guitarist/vocalist Lil’ Ed Williams, who learned to master slide guitar and showmanship from his uncle, late Maxwell Street legend J.B. Hutto.
Lil’ Ed -- dressed in a blue suit and colorful dragon fez-- wielded a white Gibson Les Paul as he and the band opened with the jazzy jump blues of “I’m Tired,” which featured fine solos by both Ed and Mike Garrett. It made us anything but tired!
With a slide on his pinky for song #2, Lil’ Ed played the Elmore James style intro, backed by a lump-de-lump shuffle, for an intense, slow, sad ballad. “I’m giving up on you,” he sang, as he crawled on his knees, mugged for the cameras and played an emotional solo.
Special guest Billy Branch made his entrance, dressed in a bright coral blazer, for the bouncy shuffle “Moratorium on Hate” as the whole band joined in on vocals for this socially conscious blues tune, highlighted by Branch’s heralded harmonica prowess.
Branch pulled out his full-sized chromatic harp for Little Walter’s classic “Blue and Lonesome.” The world-renowned Chicago blues man and educator stepped to the front of the stage to blow some sorrowful blue notes that ranged from low bass to high frequency squeeks. Branch managed to move his entire head back and forth to travel up and down the scales as he captivated the audience with his harmonica artistry. The fans roared approval and gave Branch a standing ovation as he exited.
Lil’ Ed and his Imperials wasted no time to crank up the boogie and break out the slide for the raucous fun of “Chicken, Gravy & Biscuits,” the hit song from the band’s 1989 sophomore album for Alligator Records in 1989.
The band served up another slow, sad blues as Ed kneeled by the front of the stage to play slide; he quieted the band and sang a capella about the sorrow of a fruitless search for his lost love. A lively upbeat shuffle followed, as the Imperials displayed the kind of tight musicianship that comes from 30 years together.
The final, fast tempo number had us clapping along as Ed showed us his best “guitar faces” as he moved about the stage and then joined guitarist Garrett for a lively duet that ended with them both jumping up and down like a pair of kangaroos! The crowd rose to its feet to clap and cheer them on. Lil’ Ed exited, leaving us wanting more!
After Lil’ Ed’s set, Commissioner Kelly made some comments that left a huge question mark hanging over the future of Chicago Blues Fest. Since the three day event in Millennium Park had to be cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the city was still able to celebrate the blues in late summer of 2021 by sponsoring stages around town in different neighborhoods, including the South Side’s Bronzeville, West Side’s Austin, Delmark Records on the North Side and more. And of course, there was tonight’s three-hour celebration of Alligator Records in Millennium Park.
Kelly indicated that Chicago Blues Fest was going to be transformed; it would spread out to include Millennium Park, other parks and various neighborhoods in the future. He gave no details and spoke in vague terms, but left those of us who were listening with the distinct impression that Chicago Blues Fest would no longer be a three day and evening event with multiple stages across Millennium Park as it has been since 2017 (and for decades before that in Grant Park). This left us scratching our heads and pondering the possible scenarios (none of which made us happy) that the city might enact to replace the traditional three-day festival. And the uncertainty gave us the blues!
Happily the Cash Box Kings took the stage to take our minds off that bombshell and to give us one for the road with an outstanding set of traditional, ensemble style blues served up by some of the genre’s most revered musicians.
Joe Nosek (harmonica,vocals), Oscar Wilson (vocals) and Kenny Smith (drums) are the longtime core members of The Cash Box Kings. Nosek founded the band in Wisconsin in 2001; Wilson (a.k.a. Mr. 43d Street) joined in 2007 and then the band really took off. Nosek and Wilson are the perfect foils on stage, playing off each other with humor and serving up clever, catchy original songs that are steeped in traditional blues and roots genres. Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith is a son of the blues; his father Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was Muddy Waters’ longtime drummer so Kenny is an expert in all blues styles, and much more.
John W. Lauler on acoustic bass is the newest, youngest member, who apprenticed with acclaimed Chicago jazz bassist Steve Hashimoto; once he turned 21, Lauler became a regular at the Green Mill jams.
The heralded, Grammy-winning blues guitarist Billy Flynn, has enjoyed a long-standing status as the Cash Box Kings’ part-time guitarist. Flynn heads his own band and sometimes tours with other groups. But tonight was our lucky night to see Flynn with the CBKs.
And for a special treat keyboardist Ken Saydak was on board! The former Chicagoan --who played the 88s with Lonnie Brooks, Johnny Winter, Mighty Joe Young, Dave Specter and other famed blues artists -- added his blues expertise to the ensemble.
Wearing a crown and balancing on one crutch (due to recent knee surgery), Nosek kicked off the set with the Chicago street name-dropping “Fraulina on Paulina” featuring the band singing along on the catchy chorus. Nosek bounced his crutch like a baton to conduct the band when not blowing his harp.
Oscar Wilson entered, wearing all white with and a pair of rhinestone shades, to sing the slow, sad blues song about dreams that don’t come true.
Billy Flynn started off the jump blues of “Ain’t No Fun (When the rabbit’s got the gun)” with a guitar solo that soared; Ken Saydak responded with an effervescent keyboard workout and the Nosek joined in with some wailing harmonica, urging the fans to sing along on the catchy chorus.
“Joe You Ain’t From Chicago,” is a foot tapping, humorous city vs. suburbs song about finding the best Italian beef and bragging about blues cred. The light-hearted tune had the fans smiling at the clever verses that pitted Joe from Elmhurst against South Sider Oscar Wilson.
Oscar took it down to the South Side to sing a sad Muddy Waters song, accompanied by Billy on stinging slide guitar. “It’s so cloudy, so cloudy/ I believe it’s going to rain,” he moaned, while Joe answered with an equally sorrowful harp solo. Fortunately the skies in Chicago stayed clear.
Shemekia Copeland made her entrance to huge cheers, kissed Oscar and belted out the first verse of “The Wine Talking” a funny duet with Wilson about a drunken evening, from the CBK’s most recent Alligator release, Hail to the Kings. The two singers share a special chemistry that could be felt all across Millennium Park. Oscar seductively declared “You are full bodied, delicate and refined with just a hint of bodaciousness,” to Shemekia who wondered if that was just the wine talking.
Shemekia dedicated the next song to label boss Iglauer. She recalled that he traveled to NYC to see her perform it in a club there for the first time. “Ghetto Child,” written by her late father Johnny Clyde Copeland, is always a show stopper. Billy Flynn started with a sorrowful guitar solo as Shemekia swayed and then launched into the verses that pulled on our heartstrings. She moved to the front of the stage to sing off mic and a cappella with her powerful, emotive pipes. The audience cheered and applauded heartily, as she finished and quickly ran off stage.
But soon she returned, followed by the entire cast for a rousing version of (what else?) “Sweet Home Chicago.” The singers traded verses, improvising as they went along while the instrumentalists jammed away. The crowd stood to cheer them on.
Even though the Robert Johnson song is a cliché, like “Saints Go Marching,” it seemed appropriate on this evening, given who was on stage, namely Wayne Baker Brooks and Ken Saydak.
Lonnie Brooks’ rollicking live version of “Sweet Home Chicago” from the Blues Deluxe LP recorded at Navy Pier’s ChicagoFest Blues Stage in 1980 is perhaps the most popular version of the song of all time. And Ken Saydak played on it. Sons Wayne and Ronnie accompanied their Dad countless times when he would close shows with his uptempo version that always sent the fans home satisfied.
And tonight the fans were satisfied!
As the thoroughly entertained crowd left the park at about 8:20 p.m., blues followers wondered what to make of Commissioner Kelly’s remarks about the future of Chicago Blues Fest. Would there no longer be a three day and night fest with multiple stages held in Millennium Park? Would it be whittled down to a single three hour concert with headliners and then local bands on stages scattered across the city at various times and days like this year?
Chicago Blues Guide was unsuccessful trying to get a clarification from DCASE regarding the future of the Chicago Blues Festival. The question mark hanging over the fest’s future continued to be THE major topic of discussion at the highly successful three day and night Berwyn Blues Festival at FitzGerald’s the following weekend. Would Berwyn replace Chicago when it comes to hosting a first class, three day blues festival? Or perhaps Blues on the Fox at RiverEdge Park in Aurora would step up its game?
The questions still abound, with no answers being given as of yet.
Blues fans can enjoy another mini-blues fest on Oct. 23 in Schaumburg when the Al Larson Prairie Center for the Arts hosts: Alligator Records 50th Anniversary All-Star Blues Revue w/ Billy Branch & Sons of the Blues, Toronzo Cannon & The Chicago Way, Nick Moss Band.