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Lightnin’ Hopkins tribute to be a Chicago Blues Festival highlight


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Updated: July 9, 2012 6:03AM

Sam Hopkins lived in the moment.

And he was nicknamed “Lightnin’.”

This is all that is right with the blues — one foot in the now while the other foot moves forward.

The 29th annual Chicago Blues Festival launches on June 8 with “A Centennial Celebration of Lightnin’ Hopkins” in the Petrillo Music Shell, with Lightnin’s Texas disciples Rev. KM Williams, Lightnin’s cousin Milton Hopkins with vocalist Jewel Brown, and headliner Texas Johnny Brown, who delivers Lightnin’ into a contemporary setting.

Hopkins (1912-1982) was so much more than the rural bluesman framework in which he is generally referred. He was from Centerville, Texas, north of Houston, and he was familiar with the romantic energy of regional Mexican guitarists. He played “Zologo” music on organ, a precursor to today’s Zydeco, that came to Texas from Louisiana. He played atomic boogie that bled into rock ‘n’ roll.

Maybe best of all, he was a poet of the moment.

Lightnin’ often wrote and recorded songs about whatever was on his mind at any given time: “Happy Blues for John Glenn,” and “The Devil Jumped the Black Man,” both recorded in 1962, and “My Starter Won’t Start This Morning” (1977) and “Please Settle in Vietnam” (1968).

The Hopkins tribute is a highlight of the free festival dictated by the city’s budget constraints, which this year allocates nearly $400,000 for the three-day event. City spokesperson Cindy Gatziolis said this year’s figures are about the same as they were 20 years ago, adding that the budget not only encompasses costs for talent (and related expenses such as accommodations for out-of-towners), but sound equipment, technicians and lighting. She said the festival has 32 sponsors this year.

Mavis Staples promises an inspirational 7:45 p.m. June 10 Petrillo Music Shell set to close out the festival; drummer Sam Lay (3 p.m. June 9 Front Porch Stage); underchampioned soul songwriter Bob Jones and his saucy 1970s nightclub revue (2:30 p.m. June 9 on the Crossroads Stage); and harmonica ace Billy Branch and Sons of the Blues (4:15 p.m. June 9 on Crossroads) are all Chicagoans, thus there’s no housing and transportation costs. (The Lightnin’ Hopkins tribute participants, however, don’t live in Chicago.)

More on the cutting edge of festival programming, the Texas blues-based band Z.Z. Top just released “Texicali,” their first album in nine years. I’d love to see them at the Chicago Blues Festival, but instead they’re playing that blues mecca of Naperville as part of that city’s Rib Fest on July 1.

While centennialism isn’t the most groundbreaking festival booking philosophy (Muddy Waters was born in 1913, so guess what next year’s Petrillo Music Shell blues tribute will be about?), but the Rev. KM (Kelvin Mark) Williams is a groundbreaking act who will be paying tribute to Hopkins this year.

Born in rural Clarksville, Texas, Williams, 55, is also an ordained minister in the Holiness Church. His late father, Eddie, was a rancher and a steelworker. His mother Feddie is a homemaker.

Williams’ repertoire is played out on a grungy, single-string cigar box guitar. His hot-rodded, Diddley bow guitar is custom-made by Johnny Lowe of Memphis, Tenn. Williams’ guttural rock-blues are reminiscent of the Hill Country sound of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. His latest CD “When I Rise” (Dialtone Records, is a glorious mix of progressive blues and gospel, accompanied on a few tracks by Washboard Jackson and harp player Hash Brown. Williams will also appear with Washboard, former Chicagoan Jeff Stone (Zac Harmon Band) on harmonica and two female backing singers at 1:30 p.m. June 9 on the fest’s Front Porch Stage.

“We danced to Lightin’ Hopkins when I grew up,” Williams said on a morning call from his home in De Soto, Texas. “Except we called it soul music. People like him and Slim Harpo. I have a deep theory. I’ve been playing in the blues culture for more than 30 years. When Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were in their prime in the early to mid-1960s, blacks did not pick up on their music. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, they picked up on what they were doing. The younger blacks moved on to their own music, soul, funk. A new generation of Black Power went to James Brown. And James Brown came out of jump blues.

“But after that generation and hip-hop, there seems to be a new generation of bluesmen coming up which I believe rediscovered itself in Mississippi: the R.L’s, Robert Belfour. Including me. Maybe blues will be in a different form, but culture dictates that. People don’t pick cotton anymore so they don’t have the feeling of picking cotton. And that’s not in their music. But urbanizied hip-hop? That’s going to be transplanted into the blues.”

There is plenty of Lightnin’ Hopkins transplanted in Williams’ repertoire including “Shotgun Blues” and “I’ve Had My Fun (If I Don’t Get Well No More.”)

Williams said, “I do ‘Mojo Hand’— a lot of people think that’s Muddy’s song, but Lightin’ wrote it.”

Williams works the night shift as an AT&T communications tech in Dallas. His music gigs are pretty much confined to Saturdays.

“My Sundays are taken up with church,” he said. “I never have been able to supply myself and my family as a full-time musician, especially in blues.”

Williams and his wife Diana have two grown daughters andsix grandchildren. He also has a 19-year-old son, and 14-year-old son Jeremy who is coming with him to Chicago. “He can play drums and I’m bringing him along as a roadie,” Williams said with a chuckle.

Williams preaches at Wayman Chapel (AME) in Ennis, Texas. “I may be picking up another church in Abbott, Texas,” he said. “Which is Willie Nelson’s hometown. I know some of his friends, but I’ve never met him.”

Williams said he plays his electric hollow-body Gibson guitar as he preaches. “I don’t separate between the blues and the spirituals,” he said. “Lightnin’ Hopkins played gospel (check out the jubilee-tinged “Jesus Will You Come By Here” which he recorded in the 1960s for Arhoolie). The blues is more of an every day situation which talks about life. The way I play old time gospel is the same except we’re talking about Jesus Christ and salvation. It’s the other side of the same coin.”

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