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Chicago Blues Fest: Now That's Blues with a Feeling

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Guitar Shorty plays the Chicago Blues Fest on Sunday, June 13, 2010

Four years I had been attending college in Chicago yet all those four years I never once was able to get to the Chicago Blues Fest. (Cue blues guitar riff.)

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But, that changed yesterday. I made certain that I would get to hear a slice of what the Chicago Blues had to offer a young person with ears receptive to all different kinds of sounds with varying pitches, timbres, and tones interwoven to produce what we all know as music.

Sunday afternoon I caught the tail end of Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Elliott was there for his folk blues-style. He also is a legend, a real musical cowboy who talked of the good old days when people only listened to radio and remarked in between songs that he never much liked the urban city.

I immediately noticed that Elliot influenced Bob Dylan. In fact, Elliot performed one of his songs Dylan has recorded a version of, "Diamond Joe." It's a song with lyrics that go like this: "Now there's a man you'll hear about/Most anywhere you go/And his holdings are in Texas/And his name is Diamond Joe."

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"And he carries all his money/In a diamond-studded jar/He never took much trouble/With the process of the law." It is a song with an outlaw country-edge to it. And, as it came to a close, Elliott sang the lyrics, "And when I'm called up yonder/And it's my time to go/Give my blankets to my buddies/Give the fleas to Diamond Joe." Repeating "fleas" over and over again.

Elliott was a nice little diversion from the Chicago Blues, but following Elliott, there was no messing around anymore. Just straight-edged electric guitar blues from Guitar Shorty, a 70 year old man who may have lost some of the agility he used to incorporate into his act but who still can back up the claim that he influenced Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy.

Playing a combination of tracks from his new album Bare Knuckle like "Please Mr. President" and "Too Late" along with tracks from earlier albums, Shorty clearly demonstrated why he would name an album "Bare Knuckle." It's Texas Blues, the kind Stevie Ray Vaughan made popular.

For anyone close to the stage who was able to get a glimpse of his knuckles and fingers moving and sliding up and down the guitar, they would have been simply mesmerized. And, any person really feeling the blues kind of forget the problems of life when in the presence of electric musicians like Guitar Shorty.

Finally, the night ended with the Chicago Blues Reunion, a collection of white blues musicians with a rich history in the Chicago Blues. The members of the Reunion band include: Barry Goldberg, a man who played the Hammond B-3 organ with Bob Dylan and helped found the Barry Goldberg/Steve Miller Band; Nick Gravenites, a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield and authored the classic "Born in Chicago"; Harvey Mandel (a.k.a. "The Snake"), who pioneered modern electric blues and developed and mastered sustained and controlled feedback in the blues and performed with blues legends like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Albert King and Buddy Guy; Corky Siegel, a blues harp player and vocalist with a history of playing with many Chicago blues musicians.

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The set played by the Reunion was a testament to the power and richness of blues history in Chicago. Not only did Gravenites bring blues power with his voice, but the combination of Harvey Mandel and Corky Siegel often riffing back and forth with another created a power that had an audience of nearly one thousand Chicagoans on their feet. And, Mandel's playing with feedback and melody--his jerking of the notes and creation of stutters and disjointedness--made it easy for the Reunion to take breaks and just let Mandel cut loose on stage and show why he has had such an impressive history of playing with blues legends.

At one point in the show, Charlie Musselwhite took over for Gravenites. Demonstrating why he is a blues harp legend, he led the band in a performance of a blues classic, "Help Me,"a song first performed by one of blues music's first legends, Sonny Boy Williamson.

The whole Reunion band did a show-stopping performance of "Got My Mojo Working" toward the end of the set. Joined on stage by Sam Lay, a drummer who performed with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf (a legend that the Chicago Blues Fest was celebrating this year) and later James Cotton, a man who once played the juke joints with Howlin' Wolf and developed a reputation as a great blues harp player, all were on stage for this number.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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