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30th Chicago Blues Festival opens with the music's future

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Guitarist Quinn Sullivan performs with Chicago's Shemekia Copeland
at the Thursday night opening of the 30th annual Chicago Blues Festival.
(Chandler West)

Conventional wisdom tends to support the idea that the blues require just that: wisdom. Age and experience. Kids don't yet have any real blues to moan, right?

Thursday night's opening of the 30th annual Chicago Blues Festival challenged that notion, delivering hot blues on an unseasonably cold night -- and without a gray whisker in sight. (On stage, at least.)

For a while, Thursday's shows seemed more like the Chicago Blues School Recital, with performers as young as 12 showing off their licks.

Kicking off the evening was Fernando Jones' Blues Kids of America, an ensemble of teen and preteen blues students from across the country organized through Jones' free annual music camp at Columbia College. The eight players were backed by a 10-piece horn section: the Gwendolyn Brooks Jazz Band, out of Harvey, under the direction of Roosevelt Griffin.

They're just a bunch of kids, right -- merely imitating the icons held up for them to revere? But that's how this music has always begun, coalesced and perpetuated itself. Young Chicago hotshots like Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield copied their elders and reinvigorated the genre for a generation. James Cotton recently reminisced with me about his blues education at the feet of Sonny Boy Williamson, saying simply, "I just watched and learned." They watch, they learn, then they make it their own.

So when young Ray Goren stepped up Thursday night and ripped out a guitar solo that would have made some hairs fall out of Stevie Ray Vaughan's soul patch, the crowd got on its feet and hopefully made a mental note of his name for future reference. When 12-year-old bassist Logan Layman sang, "She's got everything a woman wants," she sold it as if she were truly privy to that inventory.

Next up was Jamiah on Fire & the Red Machine, comprised of 18-year-old singer-guitarist Jamiah, 14-year-old drummer Jalon and 12-year-old bassist Kenyonte. Jamiah leads the group with a loose right wrist, driving swinging boogies and string-bending solos (and sitting down at the keyboard to chew through "Green Onions"). He bookended his set with a rocking, Hendrix-like drive (even closing with "Little Wing" and "Fire"), but the true power in this trio is in the piston-packing rhythm section.

Thursday's headliner, Shemekia Copeland -- Chicago's new Queen of the Blues -- was introduced as a singer "who still gets a seat at the kids' table."

"I used to be a young person in the blues," Copeland, 34, said from the stage during her hourlong set. "Now I feel like I'm the little old lady."

Performing songs from throughout her 15-year career thus far, including from last fall's great Grammy-nominated album "33 1/3," Copeland showcased not only her superb voice -- so clean and confident -- but something like that wisdom of age, speaking from the guilty but compassionate perspective of "The Other Woman" and skewering hypocritical holy-rollers in "Somebody Else's Jesus."

Then came another fresh young face: guitarist Quinn Sullivan, a slight sensation at the ripe age of 14. Performing just two songs with Copeland and her band, each of Sullivan's solos was distinctive and, like that voice of hers, spotless and strong. I could swear Copeland's guitarists, Willie Scandlyn and Arthur Neilson, stepped up their game while the boy was on stage.

Copeland certainly came into her own, and no doubt we'll see many of these other youngsters down the road making their own marks.

Thursday night's festival gigs were in Millennium Park. But music continues through Sunday on stages throughout Grant Park. See some suggested must-see slots.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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