For its 30th incarnation in the city parks, the Chicago Blues Festival is looking to its roots. Themed "Rollin' Up the River," the 2013 blues fest casts an eye at the music's origins in the Mississippi delta -- and the great migration that brought so many of its pioneer musicians north to the Chicago clubs.
Friday morning, veteran guitarist Robert Walker will emcee a panel discussion about the Mississippi Blues Trail -- the stretch of Southern road known as "the blues highway" -- featuring Allison Washington, representative of the trail from the Mississippi Development Authority; writer and producer Jim O'Neal; and "Highway 61" radio host Scott Barretta. Let 'em school you at 11:30 a.m. Friday on the festival's Mississippi Juke Joint Stage in Grant Park.
Beyond that, the fest features the usual hours and hours of free music over four days on stages throughout Millennium Park tonight -- where Chicago's formidable Shemekia Copeland performs with fawned-over teenage guitarist Quinn Sullivan -- and Grant Park on Friday through Sunday.
Here's a half dozen best-bet events you'll want to wander by this weekend ...
CHICAGO BLUES FESTIVAL
• 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. June 7-9
• Grant Park
• (312) 742-7649; chicagobluesfestival.us
Bobby Rush and His Blues Band
The hyphenator of folk-funk, Bobby Rush (pictured above) released one of his best albums earlier this year. Titled "Down in Louisiana," its retro approach is not only fitting with this year's festival theme, its stripped-down style is also a refreshing frame for Rush's considerable instrumental skill. Here's a guy who's spent decades drawing from down in the bayou to inject swampy funk into Chicago's more sophisticated urban blues. Hearing him back up toward the other end of the scale is invigorating, and his headlining show oughta be great fun.
8:30 p.m. Friday @ the Petrillo Music Shell
The Chicago Women in the Blues Festival
One of the hottest blues events Friday night isn't officially part of the festival itself but kind of an encore of an event from the 2011 fest. It's the Chicago Women in the Blues Festival -- one gig featuring a "bevy of blues-belting bombshells," including Peaches Staten, Holle Thee Maxwell, Demetria Taylor, Vanessa Davis, Liz Mandeville, Dia Madden, Donna Herula, Ramblin Rose, Tracee Adams, Alex Lund and Ellen Miller, hosted by Joan Gand with her band Blue Road. That's a helluva showcase of Chicago bluesy X-chromosomes, and Peaches Staten is worth the trip all by her own self.
8 p.m. to midnight @ Reggie's, 2105 S. State St. Tickets: $10 advance, $15 at the door, or take a shuttle bus (Maxwell and others will be on board) from the festival for $25 including admission (a portion of the proceeds benefits the Koko Taylor Foundation). (312) 949-0120; reggieslive.com or chicagoblueswoman.com
The Memphis Soul Revue
At the head of the Mississippi delta is the complicated culture of Memphis, the smith shop where so much early blues music was hammered out. By the 1960s and '70s, though, that sound was gathering grooves, and Memphis again shaped its own sizzling brand of soul. Saturday night's top slot features the great Bar-Kays ("Soul Finger," "Son of Shaft"), a band reborn from the survivors of Otis Redding's plane crash and one of the more aggressive and lively soul groups. Topping things off: singers Eddie Floyd ("Knock on Wood") and Sir Mack Rice ("Mustang Sally") making guest appearances.
8:10 p.m. Saturday @ the Petrillo Music Shell
Tribute to Howlin' Wolf
The blues fest is usually anchored by several tribute concerts to past or veteran blues greats, and the one to see this year is the Howlin' Wolf jam led by Eddie Shaw. Howlin' Wolf was a formidable harp player, but saxophone honcho Shaw is no "Back Door Man" to honking out the blues. With a similar style and a resume that includes stints with Muddy Waters and work on "The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions," Shaw is just the man to lead this celebration.
5:30-7:45 p.m. Saturday @ the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage
Lurrie Bell's Chicago Blues Band
Last year, late in his life and career, Lurrie Bell (son of harp master Carey Bell) made the record he was born to make: "The Devil Ain't Got No Music." The Chicago guitarist focuses on acoustic for a salvation-and-sin cocktail made all the more haunting by spare production from fellow bluesman Matthew Skoller. It's a spiritual, searching and superb revival of a great talent, and it'll make for a fine afternoon set.
1 p.m. Sunday @ the Pepsi Front Porch Stage
Chicago Blues: Old School, New Millennium
I rarely recommend these precious young-and-old revue lineups, but with this genre and at this festival the trope should produce more than a few sparks. Mixing up iconic legends with young bucks on one bill, the fest's final show features James Cotton, Demetria Taylor, John Primer, Matt Skoller, Billy Branch, Billy Flynn, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, Johnny Iguana, Lil' Ed, Felton Crews, Deitra Farr and Kenny "Beedyeyes" Smith. The reason to come is the harmonica players -- if Branch and the mighty Cotton are huffing on stage at the same time, local tornado sirens may blow.
8 p.m. Sunday @ the Petrillo Music Shell