Leading up to the Chicago Blues Festival, during May and June there will be several preview performances and film screenings held at the Chicago Cultural Center. The “official” Chicago Blues Festival preview on Daley Plaza will take place Monday, June 5, at noon.
On opening night in Millennium Park on Friday, June 9, the festival will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues. For this special performance, blues harpist and three-time GRAMMY® Award-nominated artist Billy Branch is bringing together many of the artists who have been part of the band since the first 1977 performance in Berlin, Germany. The set will include a special tribute to the legendary harpist James Cotton who was a mentor to Branch.
GRAMMY® and Oscar Award-winning artist Che “Rhymefest” Smith will perform an opening night tribute to the influence that blues music has had on hip hop. During his set, he will be joined by Billy Branch. Rhymefest grew up on Chicago’s south side and in 2005, he won a GRAMMY® Award for co-writing the legendary hit record “Jesus Walks,” performed by longtime friend Kanye West. In 2015, Smith co-wrote “Glory” alongside John Legend and Common for the 2014 motion picture Selma which received the 2015 Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Two-time GRAMMY® Award-nominated artist and American blues legend John Primer and The Real Deal will kick off the evening’s performances. John Primer was the bandleader and guitarist for Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Magic Slim & The Teardrops. Primer’s personal accolades include a Lifetime Achievement Award that reflects his countless contributions to the history of Chicago blues.
The Festival is thrilled to welcome Stax legend and soul star William Bell, who is back on top with a 2017 GRAMMY® Award win for his album This is Where I Live, his first major release in four decades. The renowned singer-songwriter was honored in 2016 with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the 15th Annual Americana Honors Awards Show and also inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Theo Huff and the New Agenda Band will bring their contemporary soul-blues style to the festival stage. Theo Huff began his career in musical theater productions, working with Ms. Jackie Taylor at the Black Ensemble Theater and his southern-soul sound was influenced by Bobby Rush, Tyrone Davis, Will Clayton and others. This dynamic combination of talents establishes him as a blues artist on the rise.
Opening the evening’s performances is Mississippi native, Nellie “Tiger” Travis, a southern soul diva with a bold voice making her an undeniable force in the Chicago blues community. Early in her career, KoKo Taylor was a major influence, mentor and friend. Earlier this year she made her late night TV debut by performing her 2008 hit “Slap Yo’ Weave Off” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Blues rock musician and Texas native Gary Clark Jr. will close the festival on Sunday evening with his electrifying energy and soulful sounds. Recently wowing at the 2017 GRAMMY® Awards with his performance with William Bell, he recently released a new live album Live/North America 2016 that features all new and unreleased live recordings including the songs “The Healing” and “My Baby’s Gone.”
Rhiannon Giddens last performed at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2014 with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. On February 24, her follow-up album Freedom Highway will be released, including nine original songs Giddens wrote or co-wrote along with a traditional song and two civil rights-era songs – “Birmingham Sunday” and the Staple Singers’ well-known single “Freedom Highway,” from which the album takes its name. Chicago artist, Ronnie Baker Brooks will open the final evening with new material from his first release in 10 years, Times Have Changed, along with fan favorites.