36th Annual Blues Festival at Millennium Park in Chicago, IL

The world’s largest free musical festival returned to Millennium Park with an impressive lineup, including Bettye LaVette, Don Bryant, and Larkin Poe.

The 36th Annual Chicago Blues Festival marked the start of summer (although the weather is yet to realize that) with six stages of free blues music. People from around the world flock to Chicago to get their Blues fix each year, and with so much crammed into those three days it’s clear to see why. 

Since the Blues Festival is set up on six stages that are close by, it makes it easy for people to make it around the different areas to catch their favorite artists, and those they’ve only heard about and not yet had the pleasure of seeing live. There’s something for everyone to see. Friday saw the likes of Joanna Connor, Guy King, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith (who made several appearances throughout the weekend), Jimmy Johnson Blues Band and Blues Hall of Fame artist Bobby Rush to name just a few of the performers across the multiple stages. Loud Hailer was there to capture the second and third-day performances which took place at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. 

Latimore was the first to perform on the big stage, bringing his blend of soul and R&B to life as the Blues Hall of Famer played his keyboard and sang his sometimes humorous lyrics. 

Don Bryant got the audience well and truly fired up with his set, bringing a Memphis-flare to proceedings. For those of you who are unfamiliar with him, you’ll undoubtedly have heard songs he has written. Most notably, “I Can’t Stand The Rain” which he co-wrote with his wife Ann Peebles, which was also covered by iconic Tina Turner. At 77 years of age, Bryant knows how to work a crowd and brought a healthy dose of passion to his performance. He had the crowd on their feet, dancing along to his soulful tunes.

Soul singer Bettye LaVette‘s career started an impressive 57 years ago, and it is clear this woman knows how to put on a heartfelt and impassioned performance. Her emotional cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” couldn’t fail to leave you with a lump in your throat. She truly has a knack for being able to put her own flare on to someone’s music, which is not an easy thing to do with such well-known songs.

Sunday evening’s festivities on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion started with Atlanta sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell who are otherwise known as Larkin Poe. Despite the rainy day the festival had been experiencing, the Pavilion was packed full with people eagerly anticipating the Roots duo. It’s fair to say these two stole the weekend with their performance. Their set was packed with beautiful harmonies, rocking, bluesy guitar riffs and some of the best slide guitar you will ever come across. If they didn’t already have the crowd on fire, their foot-stomping cover of “Black Betty” was the one that got people to their feet and well and truly engaged. The pair have been performing non-stop as an opener and in smaller venues and it’s only a matter of time (way past due) for them to be headlining their own tour at much bigger venues. Getting to see them at a free festival was a treat, and goes to show that the Blues are alive and well, and going strong with a younger generation.

Next up was The CONNECTION: Mike Welch & Friends. Back in 2016, Mike Welch performed as part of the Otis Rush Tribute at the Chicago Blue Festival, alongside singer Mike Ledbetter.  The two went on to form the Welch-Ledbetter Connection. Unfortunately, early this year Mike Ledbetter passed away. They had been scheduled to perform at the Chicago Blues Festival before Mike’s passing, so instead this performance was a tribute to Mike, making it an emotional and heartfelt one. Prior to their set, it was announced that the city had named this day “Mike Ledbetter Day,” with his family being brought on stage to commemorate the event.

“Monster” Mike Welch not only performed some of the most impressive guitar work of the weekend but also shared vocals with one of Ledbetter’s favorite vocalists, lead singer of Kilborn Alley Blues Band Andrew Duncanson. They certainly did their friend proud, a fitting tribute to someone with such a unique and powerful voice. 

Rounding out the whole weekend, Ruthie Foster was the last to take to the main stage. What better way to end the weekend than presenting Ruthie with The Blues Foundation’s ‘Koko Taylor Award’ for Traditional Blues Female Artist. She has won or been nominated for the award for the last four years straight. 

The Texan singer was clearly enjoying herself as much as the audience were, with a smile spread across her face throughout her set. Her soulful voice was perfectly complimented by her genre-spanning catalog which captivated those there catching their last fix of the festival.

It is astounding to think you can walk straight off Michigan Avenue, into a free festival housing so many talented and renowned musicians. The fact that the festival is still going strong 36 years on is testament to the fact that Blues is still alive, and has a spiritual home in Chicago.

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About Kirstine Walton 333 Articles
Kirstine moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, and has fallen in love with the city and its music scene. She enjoys combining her two biggest passions – music and photography. If there is a band with a guitar playing, chances are she’ll be there…camera in hand. Kirstine went to her first live concert at 7 years old, and hasn’t looked back since!

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