Chicago’s got
the blues!

 

Text by James O’Sullivan.
Photos by City of Chicago.

While the mention of Chicago evokes images of piping hot deep-dish pizza and kick-starting a road trip along the iconic Route 66, the Windy City is primarily known for one thing: the electric blues.

When blues musicians first arrived at the open-air market in the Maxwell Street area in the 1920s, their acoustic tales struggled to rise above the urban din. The solution was electric. The resultant blistering sounds spread like wildfire to the south and west of the city, driven by the swagger and showmanship of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed, along with a growing list of Chicago greats.

“When you think of the original Chicago blues, you think of Muddy,” affirms local bluesman Toronzo Cannon. “But nowadays you also think of Buddy Guy.”

Located just south of the downtown area (or “The Loop” as Chicagoans call it), Buddy Guy’s Legends is the popular blues haunt named in honour of the living legend, and draws a keen crowd.

“When people come to Buddy Guy’s they are looking to see what band is going to knock their socks off,” Cannon continues. “They are engaged; they’ve got their seats front and centre.”

While the blues clubs in the original hotspots of the South and West Sides come and go, there are some reliable stalwarts to be found on the city’s North Side, such as B.L.U.E.S. and Rosa’s Lounge.

The exact ingredients constituting the genuine Chicago sound remain a hotly disputed topic on the local scene. Cannon feels that there is only one vital criterion.

“Everybody’s blues is different,” Cannon enthuses. “If it’s dirty, gritty and vocally raw, as far as telling you the truth about whatever that song is about – that’s authentic Chicago blues.”

And one can’t talk about Chicago blues without mentioning the half a million fans who descend on Grant Park for three days in June each year for the largest free blues festival in the world.

The Chicago Blues Festival draws half a million blues fans to the city for a packed bill of free events.

Finding the blues

Buddy Guy’s Legends

This club showcases the biggest names in the business; the eponymous bluesman can often be found at Legends during his annual residency.
700 S. Wabash Ave, Chicago

B.L.U.E.S.

Also known as “B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted,” this intimate Lincoln Park club treats its audience to a packed calendar of local artists.
2519 North Halsted Street, Chicago

Rosa’s Lounge

Off the beaten track and located deep in the residential area of Logan’s Square, Rosa’s has been offering an authentic blues-joint experience for 30 years.
3420 West Armitage Avenue, Chicago


This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.