There’s a lot going on this weekend in Chicago. I’m headed over to Rib Fest to check out my friends Fort Frances, and following that with Ezra Furman and the Harpoons. There are some good shows elsewhere, but if I didn’t have plans, I’d be getting ready to do a little jammin’ at the Chicago Blues Fest.
We get a lot of festivals in the great city of Chicago (hell, I think there’s a festival named after every neighborhood and damn near every street has its own shindig throughout the summer). None of them capture the spirit of the city quite like the Blues Festival. Lollapalooza features few local acts, and hasn’t been relevant pretty much since it set up shop in Chicago (but please don’t leave! We need the money!). Pitchfork is basically Lollapalooza’s cool friend who has bands most people in the general public have never heard of (and a lot of bands that no one cares about). North Coast is pretty cool. In its second year, it’s drawing some decent names. But none of them feature the music that gets to the heart and soul of the city like this.
For decades the blues lived in the Mississippi delta, far away from the ears of the big city. When Muddy Watters brought his guitar and settled in Chicago, he changed the musical landscape forever. I personally thank the blues gods every day for this. Without Muddy, there would be no Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton. Hell, there may be no Congregation or Jonny Lang. Could you imagine a world without the blues?? I can’t.
So in honor of this event, here are my top ten blues songs (some of them covers) of all time:
10. “Come On In My Kitchen” by Steve Miller Band – I don’t know how many times this song was caught blaring out of my car when I was a teenager, but I’ll put it somewhere between a thousand and a million. (Original by Robert Johnson)
9. “Ball and Chain” by Janis Joplin – I’m not the biggest Janis fan. I like her ok, but I think there’s as much bad as there is good. But this song, specifically the version from the Monterey Pop Festival, is jaw-droppingly amazing. (Original by Big Mama Thorton)
8. “Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughn – Absolutely my favorite song to play on Rock Band. One of many on this list who died in the prime of their life. Our loss. (Original by Larry Davis)
7. “Yer Blues” by The Dirty Mac – John Lennon, Keith Richards, Mitch Mitchell, and Eric Clapton combined forces for a one-off performance in the UK for a televised event titled “Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.” This is the only song recorded, and it’s a Beatles cover (which probably tells you what the JHE, Rolling Stones, and Cream thought of the Beatles at the time). Not known for being overly bluesy, this track is a great departure, and also fits well with all three other performers.
6. “Someday The Sun Won’t Shine For You” by Jethro Tull – Not known for their bluesy side, Ian Anderson and co turn this song into an epic sing-a-long/jam session
5. “Blues Before Sunrise” by Eric Clapton – Another song that’s been done a million times. There’s a ferocity in Clapton’s voice that sets this one apart. Great lead track to a really great blues album, From The Cradle. (Original by Leroy Carr)
4. “How Blue Can You Get” by BB King – Now in his 80’s and still getting it done, BB King is one of the few legends we have left in America. The version off of Live In Cook County Jail is my favorite, but all versions are good. That growl of his just puts a big grin on my face.
3. “Red House” by Jimi Hendrix – The only song I ever tried to figure out on the guitar. I got through that little finger-pluckin’ opening, and then called it quits. The guy was a master, and this was him at his best. Prince does a great version of this song as well, re-titled “Purple House.”
2. “Stop Breakin’ Down” by too many artists to count – I suppose my favorite is the one the White Stripes did. Jack White has a way of singing that reminds me a lot of Robert Johnson. The Rolling Stones version is great as well. Mick really brings the swagger that sets the blues apart. Amazing song, and it’s left
1. “Key To The Highway” by Buddy Guy and Junior Wells – This version appeared on their last collaboration together before Junior passed. I don’t know what it is about this particular version (there are literally hundreds out there), but the combination of Guy and Wells is magical. I listen to this song all the time and I never get tired of it. (Original by Bill Broonzy)
Check out the Chicago Blues Festival’s website for a schedule of who’s playing. Legends like Hubert Sumlin, Lonnie Brooks, and Eddie Clearwater will all be there. I saw Sumlin a couple years ago at Clapton’s Crossroads festival, and he’s still got it.