During the 30th annual Chicago Blues Festival next week, any set definition of the music — or this event's scope — should be busted apart. No doubt, this city will always be identified with the voices of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, but musicians from across America keep reworking the art, and Chicago serves as their crossroads. Certain fans have declared that a set repertoire, song structure and tones constitute the blues, but the performers are often just as happy to delve into R&B, rock and country. One headliner next week — The Bar-Kays — will focus on the classic soul of their Memphis, Tenn., hometown. Singer/guitarist Bobby Rush highlights his rural Louisiana roots. Chicago's Deitra Farr defied early doubters to sing the blues on her own terms.
When Bar-Kays singer Larry Dodson approached the stage at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972, he knew it would be the biggest performance of his life. His band was performing as part of a festival for acts on the Memphis soul label, Stax, and the event would be captured in the film "Wattstax." So with ivory fringes flaring and silver-dollar and gold chain jewelry shining, the 20-year-old vocalist loudly called himself "Son of Shaft" as the band delivered funk riffs that were hard enough to match his declaration.
Dodson said that The Bar-Kays' original plan would have been even more striking.
"We had planned to come out of the dressing room and enter on white horses and chariots," Dodson said from his Memphis office. "If you can imagine, the strings on my sleeves flying through the clouds, and all the band on white horses. Then my dear friend (headliner) Isaac Hayes caught wind of this and sent word: 'Aw, hell naw, that ain't gonna happen.'"
The Bar-Kays were, in Dodson's words, "a rebel band at Stax — they thought we were crazy." Their aggressive take on R&B in the early 1970s helped create a new genre, which they named via a 1970 album: "Black Rock."
But the Bar-Kays started in the 1960s performing straightforward soul as the instrumental ensemble backing up Stax's star vocalists. Most of the band died alongside Otis Redding in their tour's airplane crash near Madison, Wis., in 1967. Bassist James Alexander and trumpeter Ben Cauley reorganized the group and recruited Dodson who helped transform it. Part of the Bar-Kays set will be a return to its beginnings, with veteran singers Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice making guest appearances.
"That soulful Memphis unrehearsed, raw, raunchy, tingly, making you laugh, making you cry kind of music is still alive and well," Dodson said. "It's important that audiences see the camaraderie is still there."
Meanwhile, the Bar-Kays never became a nostalgia act. Hip-hop producers (including Alexander's son Jazze Pha) who heavily sampled the group's 1970s tracks — like "Holy Ghost" and "Humpin'" — brought them a new audience. The Bar-Kays' recent songs embrace slow-tempo contemporary R&B, such as the autobiographical "Grown Folks."
"We're trying to not alienate our die-hard fans, and at the same time be smart enough to be produced in a way that we stay radio friendly," Dodson said. "If you're putting out good music, that's the common thread. New fans will say, 'Mom and dad used to play them, but I didn't know they were that cool.'"
8:10 p.m. June 8
Bobby Rush has made himself hard to pin down for more than 50 years, whether he's playing a major international festival or backwater dive. On some gigs, his performance with a full band will move close to burlesque (complete with provocative shake dancers). Other times, Rush will deliver deeply emotional solo acoustic blues. Author David Whiteis likens him to a folkloric mysterious trickster figure in his new book, "Southern Soul-Blues," but there is no mistaking Rush's roots.
Last year, Rush released "Down in Louisiana" (Deep Rush), which celebrates his youth in the Bayou, and he's still a regular at such celebrations as Mardi Gras.
"When I was growing up in Louisiana, you had rattlesnakes, eel, crawfish and shrimp in the creek, and I started to write about the things I knew about," Rush said from his home in Jackson, Miss. "Especially the Creole-looking girls with the long hair. We were all familiar with the accordion and zydeco kind of stuff."
Rush also talks about the Cajun language, how his youthful experiences in juke joints in Pine Bluff, Ark., directed him toward both blues and country, and the way early R&B singer Louis Jordan inspired his own way of using racy metaphors. His move to Chicago around the early 1950s was pivotal.
"Chicago is more sophisticated with jazz-oriented blues," Rush said. "You add what I learned in Louisiana with Chicago, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed and stir it up, you get the Bobby Rush soup."
Hard work in often-demeaning circumstances were also part of this story. Even after having a hit record in 1971, "Chicken Heads," Rush still toiled in what was termed the "chitlin' circuit."
"Club owners would get hog chitlins for free and give them away," Rush said. "We played for the first gigs where we could eat. The more things have changed, more remain the same: They still underpay you, so what would you call it?"
Not that Rush has to worry about as much about finances nowadays. His entrepreneurial ideas have kept him financially secure. Still, he says his origins continue to shape his perspective.