B.B. King played coy at the 25th annual Chicago Blues Festival last weekend. “I won’t say what party I’m for,” the great vocalist and guitarist began, in obvious reference to local resident Barack Obama’s ascension to Democratic presidential nominee, “but everybody has something to be happy about now. Including the women — who found out ‘Yes, we can!‘” Few other of the hundreds of performers were even that explicit onstage, but the fest reportedly drew 750,000 listeners over four days, and the music projected a general air of triumph against daunting odds.
Maybe it was the fact that the crowds appeared on the fest’s last day despite major thunderstorms to hear B.B., an 82-year-old diabetic who still sings with affecting power and can wrench a thrilling sound from the pluck of a single note on his guitar Lucille. Or the roaring squall of 64-year-old albino guitarist Johnny Winter, frail looking though he is, joined by 73-year-old harmonicaist James Cotton. Or the soaring sound of Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, cavorting on Grant Park’s Petrillo Music Shell stage. The moxy of returned-from-retirement Little Willie Littlefield, 77, entertaining a huge audience with only boogie-woogie piano stylings and voice in a tradition that dates back to Jelly Roll Morton. The warmly seductive style of guitarist-singer Barbara Lynn; the antics of ageless Sugar Pie De Santo, whose silver lamé beret stayed on her head as she ended a song with somersaults, the heartfelt wail of guitarist-singer Jimmy Johnson, the mellow retro vibe of Otis Taylor with a troupe including New Orleans banjoist Don Vappe, the duck-walk and behind-the-head guitar-picking of elegantly white-suited Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater. The hard-work ethic embodied by harmonicaist Billy Branch, performing both at the fest and afterwards at the Blues Heaven Foundation, set up by the late Willie Dixon at the old Chess Records Studios. The idea that an overwhelmingly white yet all-ages audience embraces the bedrock grit and proud gumption of America’s African diaspora culture.