Recently I had the privilege of seeing Buddy Guy in concert. Arguably the last of the blues music greats, Guy, 81, put on an amazing, energetic show at Casino Rama in Orillia, Ont., prompting me to wonder if perhaps it was he, rather than Robert Johnson, who struck the legendary deal with the devil at the Crossroads in Mississippi.
(Buddy will be back in Toronto at Massey Hall on April 14 it might be noted.)
The concert also got me thinking about one of my favourite travel excursions: a blues tour in Chicago, which coincidentally is home to Buddy Guy’s Legends blues club.
Dubbed the “Blues Capital of the World,” Chicago has the blues in its soul in the same way that hockey is part of Toronto or Montreal’s DNA. The musical form may have been born in the Mississippi Delta but it travelled north with the Great Migration of the early 1900s, landing in full force in Chicago. And as the music electrified in the 1950s, names like Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, and Guy, became not only synonymous with the genre, but also helped shape the early development of rock and roll.
“Today, blues music is as much a part of the Chicago landscape as deep dish pizza and the Wrigley Field bleachers,” notes destination marketing organization Choose Chicago on its web site. And while I availed myself of – and recommend – all three activities on my last visit, it’s the blues tour that I remember most today.
My memorable experience came courtesy of local tour company Chicago Detours (www.chicagodetours.com), whose guide was not only knowledgeable about the music, and its players, but the important socio-political foundations of the style, including such subjects as prohibition, speakeasies, juke joints, and segregation. The tour included stops at landmark sites (like the Chess Records building), documentary video clips on the bus, and an harmonica (and history) lesson from a local blues musician who hopped on the bus – in our case Grammy award nominee Billy Branch, who had played harmonica in Willie Dixon’s band
“We curate our tours to include the perspectives of many people over history,” explained Amanda Scotese, executive director of Chicago Detours of the intensity of the tour.
And while the Detours tour was naturally of limited duration there is no shortage of other places to experience at greater length the blues in Chicago – a place where Branch says, “even mediocre bands are better than most bands outside Chicago.”
A few worthy venues include:
• Kingston Mines (kingstonmines.com): One of the largest venues in the city, the club has two stages with alternating bands that provide continuous music seven nights a week. Patrons hilariously move en masse from one side of the venue to the other when the band changes.
• Chicago B.L.U.E.S. Bar (chicagobluesbar.com): An intimate bar featuring local artists that has been voted best blues club on the north side. (A dual cover charge can be purchased for neighbouring Kingston Mines.)
• Blue Chicago (bluechicago.com): This 1940s-style club has music seven nights a week and specializes in “Chicago blues.” Open since 1985, the venue is located in the heart of the River North entertainment district.
And, of course:
• Buddy Guy’s Legends (buddyguy.com): A stop here is requisite, not just for the music, but the memorabilia on the walls, including guitars from both blues and rock legends. Name appeal makes this perhaps the most famous club in the city, but even when Guy isn’t on stage, the places rocks, even at the noon hour.
Blues aficionados might also want to check out the annual Chicago Blues Festival, held each June at Millennium Park. The free festival started in 1984 as a tribute to the late Muddy Waters and attracts as many as half a million visitors, who can see both new and vintage performers take the stage over the course of three days. In 2018, the event will take place June 8-10.
Chicago is "home of the blues" and a local blues tour is great way to learn about it, or simply deepen ones knowledge.