Chicago Blues

John & Susan Simpson
Mon 4 Jul 2022 21:51
The last time John and I visited Chicago (in 2003) it was so cold we could feel the cold of the pavement through the soles of our shoes as we walked, and I eventually had to buy a sheepskin hat that became irreverently known as the plant pot.  It wasn’t the greatest look but guarding against frostbite took precedence at the time!  Thankfully it was a bit warmer than that for this visit, although having been in temperatures greater than 26 degrees C for the past 6 months we still felt we’d taken a step towards the Arctic.  Wearing trousers, shoes and socks felt very odd indeed.  One day we even had to wear coats!

When we were planning the American music tour element of our US trip we’d been delighted to discover that the Chicago Blues Festival 2022 was to take place during the weeks we would be there.  John has visited Chicago a number of times over the years and always loved to hear the particular driving Chicago Blues music style associated with the city.  We booked a hotel right in the centre of Chicago, close to Millennium Park where the Festival was held.  

The Festival ran for four days with a succession of bands playing on two stages from Noon until 9.00 pm and, amazingly, admission was completely free of charge throughout the event. The main stage was an impressive open air arena with a ‘ceiling’ of curved metal bars covering a huge lawn.  There was a real party atmosphere as friends and families gathered together on the grass and settled in to enjoy the music.  We enjoyed seeing Shemekia Copeland on the first evening, as well as some great bands and artists previously unknown to us.  Toronzo Cannon was a particular favourite.
John with the main stage in the distance behind him

The Festival’s aim was to celebrate the past, present and future of the Chicago Blues sound, characterised by electric guitars and driving bass lines.  It did seem as though just about every performer was related in some way to one of the past Chicago Blues ‘greats’ - somebody’s son, nephew, distant cousin.  There was a wide age range of performers but a strong leaning towards preserving the Blues and we felt there was some tension between continuing the legacy of the Chicago Blues heyday of the 1950/60s and allowing the form to develop.  Music isn’t a static art form and playing the same songs in the same way for evermore is unlikely to inspire the younger generation.  I doubt that Chicago teenagers would relate much to singing about little red roosters, though they featured often in the lyrics!  

When not in the Festival we also did some sightseeing, including a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art and a riverboat tour looking at the architecture of the city.  We tried a Chicago Deep Dish Pizza, which was unlike any other pizza we’d ever had - more of a deep pie crust filled with a tomato, onion, meat and sausage filling.  This was the only time on our US tour that we went native and took a carry out box home from the restaurant - this seemed to be normal practice everywhere we went.   We shared a medium pizza but didn’t manage even half between us!

On the Sunday we attended Eucharist at St James Cathedral hoping to catch up with the Dean there, who was a contemporary when we were at University.  Unfortunately he was away on sabbatical but it was a welcoming church and a sung service with a good choir so it was lovely to be part of that.  The prayers really brought home to us that we in the UK are only aware of a fraction of the gun crime actually happening in the US.  There was a special prayer for 'those who lost their lives to gun violence in Chicago THIS WEEK’ and a shockingly long list of 15 names.  Writing this on 4th July when there has been another mass shooting in Chicago, it seems impossible that the status quo can be allowed to continue.  Yet no-one we spoke to about gun ownership in the US could see how change might happen.  The subject came up frequently and without prompting so it isn’t that people don’t recognise there’s a problem.  Today’s Chicago shooting marks the 308th mass shooting in the US so far this year, with 11 in the first four days of July alone.  Even as a visitor I felt a rush of anxiety for the children we passed playing in school playgrounds and can’t imagine how I would cope as a parent dealing with that fear every day.  Wake up America; is this really the land of the free?