What's the Scoop on the 2022 Chicago Blues Festival?
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
While it’s a brand-new year, the word’s already been out on various 2022 festival dates and schedules. The lineup for the Big Blues Bender was recently released so people can plan their September Vegas vacation accordingly. Down in Clarksdale, Mississippi, it’s the usual race to procure rooms for the April 23rd Juke Joint Festival, which attracted a huge international audience in the pre-Covid era.
The bottom line is that even though everyone’s navigating this new normal, many want to commence with the logistics of planning their trips around these fests. But this can only be done once dates and locations have been set!
When it comes to all (or any) details on the Chicago Blues Festival, fans continue to be left in the dark. Will it be held in June, or will the city stick with the September date? Will it run for an entire weekend or is the 2021 shortened schedule the new norm? Will last year’s emphasis on neighborhood festivals mean less of a presence in Millennium Park?
Yes, there are many questions, but the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) remains mum on the subject with the website still promoting last year’s one night festival, which was part of the broader “Chicago in Tune.” A private message on the department’s Facebook page yielded the response that “dates will be announced in early 2022.”
Granted, it’s been a weird couple of years and “Chicago in Tune” served its purpose but it’s the fervent hope of many that the city goes back to some semblance of pre-2020 Chicago Blues Festival normalcy. While it’s highly unlikely that it will ever return to a four-day duration at the beloved Grant Park location, the burning question is if the home of the blues will be giving the genre its due with a central location, outlying stages to introduce lesser-known local artists, and more than a few hours of music?
While Blues Festival can never be as big of a financial draw as Lollapalooza (which WAS held as usual in 2021) the Chicago Blues Festival does attract blues fans from across the country and around the world —all who stay in the city, have meals at nearby establishments and spend freely at local blues clubs and other venues. Many have been attending “the world’s largest free festival” since its inception in 1984.
Take the case of Alex Yankowsky who hails from Philadelphia. He’s been attending the Chicago Blues Fest since 1992 and he’s enjoyed blues-brotherly bonding with far-flung friends ever since then. The same can be said for Catherine Jolley and her husband, David Almvig of Portland, Oregon. They come in for Blues Fest and spend about week in Chicago doing everything from visiting blues clubs to taking in the attractions at the Art Museum.
But most of these activities center around the downtown area and some blues fans from across the pond have a bit of trepidation about attending the neighborhood festivals instead of the central location in Chicago’s Loop. Barry Trump, a blues-savvy Brit, has been a frequent visitor to various festivals in the US, including the Chicago Blues Festival. He said, “I think European visitors are wary about the outer areas” and added that even a late-night foray to Rosa’s Lounge was a “bit of a trip” into unfamiliar territory.
Trump did seem amenable to the idea of a “hop on/hop off” blues bus that could take visitors to several areas, but this could pose a logistical challenge for the city of Chicago as the clock keeps ticking away with seemingly no firm plans in place yet.
Janice Monti, the retired Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at Dominican University and Director of the Blues and the Spirit Symposium broached the idea of a “blues bus” that offers weekly narrated tours in motor coaches to historic sites in a Chicago Tribune op-ed that ran in 2016. The entire piece was centered around how the city of Chicago could better utilize its blues heritage in several areas to “promote tourism, create opportunities for underrepresented groups and establish once and for all the contributions of Chicago’s musical legacy.”
Monti recently said, “Chicago has one of the remaining free metropolitan blues festivals in a wonderful location” but it has been “chipped away” over the years through questionable bookings and schedule reductions. She recalled “the glory days of Blues Fest when there was a decided public effort to showcase south side and west side musicians.” She added that, “the blues needs to grow to prosper” but “regrets that we’re losing representation with every passing year.”
Monti cited the gains that smaller cities like Clarksdale and St. Louis have made in terms of honoring their blues heritage. Memphis has also made great strides in music tourism through the revitalization of the area surrounding Stax Studios. The consolidation of blues societies by their International Blues Foundation also helped to give the city a more unified voice and vision for the blues.
While Covid could once again impact scheduling, it does make sense to coordinate and initiate action so not to be left flat-footed when the event is set to happen. Unfortunately, this seemed to be case at the Bronzeville Blues Festival that was held on August 29th, at Hadiya Pendleton Park and Muddy Waters’ house at 43rd and Lake Park.
Yet music was also scheduled along the historic strip of 43rd street, but the Forum, Pepper’s Lounge and the old Checkerboard Lounge stages were scrapped at the last-minute. This snafu left several musicians without a gig and fans with some logistical challenges since the many talented acts played on stages that were more than a mile apart!
Of course, the news isn’t all bleak on the blues front as there was a very successful festival held on the west side in September. The Soul City Blues festival took place in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood and this event provided a glimpse of the right way to run a neighborhood festival as seemingly the entire community came together to make sure that the many visitors there had a good time.
But the bottom line is that while these neighborhood festivals did their best to showcase local musicians and neighborhood businesses, the city of Chicago needs to do more to capitalize on its rich blues legacy beginning with giving the musicians their due on the big downtown stages. This isn’t to say that the city does away with these neighborhood’s festivals—quite the contrary as Soul City Blues showcased how an event of this nature could bring an entire community together.
Unfortunately, the city seems rather reluctant to reap the benefits of promoting its rich and unique relationship with the blues. Monti noted that, “there really aren’t a lot of opportunities for tourists to explore this part of Chicago’s history and legacy.”
For over 36 years, the Chicago Blues Festival was a great way to depict the city in a positive light and showcase our best and brightest in a beautiful downtown setting. It drew tourists from all around the world who helped fill the city coffers. It helped local artists gain a larger, devoted fan base and was a key factor as Chicago blues gained stature all around the world.
Now as we wait for news on the 2022 edition, there’s a lot of wishing and hoping that the city returns to its regular June date and has already begun the process of booking artists ranging from local blues legends to new up-and-comers who need exposure to a broader audience. If Chicago wants to be known as the “home of the blues,” then it needs to nurture and promote home-grown talent and honor the longtime musicians who have been tirelessly plying their trade here for many years.
All photos from the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park are courtesy of Howard Greenblatt/Imagine Pictures.