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Playing it safe at Blues Fest

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Updated: July 10, 2012 6:11AM

The Chicago Blues Festival will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.

It is a living, organic entity that brings attention and tourism to a city that is proudly the home of contemporary blues. (The roots of the blues are in the South.)

Consider the festival as a blues musician.

At age 29 it should be flexing its muscle and playing with adventure. This wasn’t the case on Friday’s opening night “Centennial Celebration of Lightin’ Hopkins” that featured Texas imports Rev. KM Williams, Milton Hopkins with jazz-blues vocalist Jewel Brown and guitarist Texas Johnny Brown in the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park.

The “celebration” was a polished segment under deep blue skies, but it was hardly the world class throwdown the blues festival claims to be. In fact, the only crossover headliner for the entire weekend is Chicago’s spiritual compass, Mavis Staples, who closes things out Sunday night in the music shell.

Fans of the Robert Randolph Band and Mississippi’s guttural Hill Country sound need to inspect Rev. Williams. His 45-minute set was framed by depth and integity, playing a couple songs on his vintage single-string cigar box guitar before embarking on a tribute to Hopkins. Wearing a black suit, black shirt, white tie and white brimmed black lid, Rev. Williams switched to electric guitar and delivered Hopkins tunes like “Mojo Hand” and “Shotgun Blues.” He was backed by two female vocalists, a harmonica player and Washboard Jackson on drums and washboard — sometimes at the same time while playing drums with his hands.

Jackson’s punk rock attitude toward Texas blues really took the Rev. to a higher ground, most apparently on “When I Rise” the charging title track of Rev. William’s latest record.

Williams actually also talked about Lightin’ Hopkins, explaining how Lightin’ learned from Texan Blind Lemon Jefferson before a traditional shuffle take of Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” a.k.a. “One Kind Favor,” by Hopkins — and on bluesman Bob Dylan’s debut album.

Next up was ace guitarist Milton Hopkins, who is even related to Lightin’ Hopkins. He is a cousin, but you wouldn’t have known that unless you snagged a festival program. Hopkins played behind late and unfortunate Texas soul singer Johnny Ace, Little Richard and others. His tasty instrumentals ran the gamut from snippets of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” to melodic make-out passages that would have gone down fine on a Santo & Johnny LP. Hopkins’ cobalt blue suit was a thing to behold as well.

Vocalist Jewel Brown won over the crowd with feisty rhythm and blues of “Jerry” and the jump blues of “Daddy Daddy” which was fueled by a terrific Hopkins lead. Wearing a cobalt blue dress, Brown ambled on stage with a sliver cane, but later found herself dancing in the set to the swaggering Texas blues sound flavored by Al Cortez on trumpet and long time Texas session guy Kaz Kazanoff on saxophone. Texas Johnny Brown (no relation to Jewel) closed out the tribute in a loving time warp that dated back to the mid-1940s when he was a member of Amos Milburn’s Aladdin Chickenshackers out of Houston, Texas.

The Lightin’ Hopkins tribute would have been truly memorable with more context (like even a large photo of Lightin’ Hopkins behind the performers) and in a smaller space. But the swing style of Texas blues that is seeped in guitar celebrated the music’s regionalism. I suspect this resonated with the ringers in the audience who just wanted to take in some free music on a beautiful Chicago summer night. The blues festival still works that way.

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