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Singin' in the Pain: Where to Find True Blue Chicago
Douglas DuBrin

photo: Courtesy of Artis’s Cocktail Lounge
Ever since the recent nationwide effort began to outlaw smoking in restaurants and bars, patrons and business owners alike have been wondering what will happen to the public’s attitude towards nightlife. With the carcinogenic haze so often associated with the stereotypical nightclub, will the image of the authentic back-alley music venue go the way of the dodo bird? Well, when nicotine-sticks are completely verboten in Chicago clubs (a trend currently under way), live-music seekers will still be able to find nourishment for their souls (not to mention fresh air for their lungs). Even after the haze fades away, there will still be the tunes.

The Authenticity Trap
When going to hear the blues in Chicago (or in other towns), it’s important not to fall prey to the claws of authenticity chasing. There is great music to be found in any number of venues, not only in those that fit the stereotype of “genuine.” Club owners can easily capitalize on the public’s urge to have the real blues experience, and therefore will attempt to manufacture that experience according to a certain blueprint—cramped, smoky, solely-black-musician-hired joints (even when squeezed between a Starbucks and White Hen Pantry in a suburban strip mall). From my perspective, the music is what counts, not the ambience, and amazing music can be found most anywhere in the city.

A Brief History
Blues was born as a post-slavery form of expression in the deep rural regions of the South, and found its way into Chicago in the early part of the 20th century as economic opportunities moved northward. In the early 1920s, Delta blues (from the Mississippi River Delta region) gave rise to pioneers such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and later, such stalwarts as Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy. Urban blues, inspired by the South but born and bred in Chicago, cut a new swath in the musical landscape in the post-World War II period, as it redefined the genre through its gritty, robust and often arresting sound—a sound that symbolized the life and spirit of the city itself. This kind of blues is the one most often associated with the musical form and has become so influential to countless blues musicians, not to mention to monumental rockers such as Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

The Clubs
Fortunately, the blues is feeling quite well these days, and so there are a plethora of places in Chicago to see them performed even during a short stint in the city. Again, neighborhood doesn’t necessarily dictate authenticity. Simply because a club is situated in the heart of Yuppieville does not mean the blues it generates is less significant than the riffs being played in some dingy South Side nook. That said . . .

photo: Courtesy of The Chicago Blues Festival
South Side
Artis’s Cocktail Lounge fulfills the stereotype of the Authentic South Side Chicago Blues Bar with one major exception—the musical experience is real. The talent is seasoned and savory—including frequent appearances by harpist (harmonica-playing) virtuoso Billy Branch —and the clientele predominantly South Side blues and booze enthusiasts. No spritzers allowed. upscale South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park (home to the University of Chicago), and even though the club’s structural roots have been uprooted completely, its musical ones have not. Checkerboard still serves its entrees hot, delicious and true to its storied past.

Nestled away in a remote corner of town, Lee’s Unleaded Blues has been pumping the local community
and beyond with unadulterated musical fuel for almost thirty years. The music is eclectic—straight blues, reggae, R&B—and so is the crowd, but Lee’s unifies it all with music worthy of its esteemed status
among the blues cognoscenti.

West Side
If you’re hankering for tunes to go with a plate of cornbread, sweet-potato fries and barbeque pork sandwich (or vice versa), Smoke Daddy is your place. Open for grub and music seven nights a week, Smoke Daddy is a great way to satisfy your hunger for smokin’ chords and ribs. Rosa’s holds special place in my heart, since it was the locus of my first official date with my wife. On that bone-numbingly chilly March evening ten years ago, we hit the club to see the aptly named Big Time Sarah. Rosa’s atmosphere is so warm and inviting, and the music so consistently delightful, that I (almost) attribute the club to setting the stage for my marriage. If simply music is what you want, trek on over to the end of the West Side’s tentacles, and hit up Bossman Blues Club. The club serves booze, not food, and plays blues, blues and only blues. This joint is not a contrived attempt to create a blues atmosphere—it is a blues atmosphere.

North Side
One of the oldest live-entertainment establishments in Chicago, Kingston Mines is a wise and trusted blues counselor, offering consistently fine musical advice to a widely diverse clientele. Situated in affluent Lincoln Park near DePaul University’s North Side campus, the always-packed Kingston Mines has managed to keep its prices reasonable and its blues top shelf, despite the soaring cost of living in its surrounding environ. Blue Chicago and its little sister, Blue Chicago on Clark, both offer solid fare from the likes of local heavies Willie Kent, Eddy Clearwater, and Big Time Sarah. The entry ticket is costly on weekends, reflecting the local demographic, but weekdays are quite reasonable.

For almost thirty years—and seven nights (and mornings) per week—B.L.U.E.S., an elbow-in-your-face- quartered, thread-bare, dirt-cheap (by Lincoln Park standards) and consistently top-notch blues joint, has been playing some of the best music in town to packed houses of all kinds of folk. Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Shaw, and Magic Slim are regular acts, and hops and the hard stuff is the order of the night. Claustrophobics need not apply.

photo: Courtesy of The Chicago Blues Festival
The Loop
Abutting the southern edge of Chicago’s downtown, Buddy Guy’s Legends is owned and operated by none other than Mr. Guy himself, an unequivocal international blues icon. Guy has done anything but sell out, though, since his club puts the music first (which is not to dismiss the extensive menu of Southern-cooking morsels), and disregards any superfluous details. Guy picks up the guitar from time-to-time, and blues stars from Koko to Clapton are known to drop by and jam unannounced.

The ‘Burbs
Yes, the name is too precious, and the place is a distant cousin to (not to mention far-away trek from) the aforementioned bare-boned, grub-deprived B.L.U.E.S.-like venues, but for an evening of great steaks, panoramic views and fabulous tunes, Chord On Blues is the place. You will probably drop some dough on the kitchen fare, and if in Chicago proper, be prepared to drive a ways, but the effort is worth it. Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket and Cocktail Lounge, a quirky, Route 66-kissing, diner-like fried-chicken joint that also serves blues platters on weekends, has been in more-or-less operation since before the war (WWII, that is).

The chicken is as good as it gets and the music is solid –Koko Taylor once was a regular. Aptly named Slice of Chicago dishes up a free blues jam on Sundays to go along with your succulent deep-dish or thin-crust pie (or other Italian fare), while other nights the music is eclectic. This Palatine (far-off suburb) venue tags itself as “a slice of the city in the suburbs.”

Perhaps the granddaddy of all big-scale blues bashes, The Chicago Blues Festival attracts close to one million listeners, ranging from the true aficionado to the uninitiated neophyte. As any massive festival goes, this one’s overcrowded and over-hyped, but the Fest still packs a mighty musical punch in so short a time. Of course, the experience of viewing in piecemeal several acts spread out over the trash- and body-strewn super lawn of Grant Park in a few days is a bit different from intimately seeing the chord progressions of a seasoned guitarist in a tiny club, but where else can you familiarize yourself with so many varieties of one form at one time? (Well, other music festivals, I suppose.) My advice is to enter the festival with the expectation that you will not be able to differentiate very well among the bands and that you will not learn the nuances of the art form, but that you still will have one hell of a time. And to truly immerse yourself in the Blues Fest experience, you should eat and drink merrily, as the gustatory options are as robust as the music. (From June 8-11; admission FREE.)

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