Blues Fest brings together legends

Chicago native Billy Branch (top) performs on his harmonica to compliment Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tychimba Jess (below) as Jess reads from his award-winning volume about iconic blues musician Leadbelly at the U. of C. Blues Fest over the weekend. (Photos by Owen Lawson III)

By TIA CAROL JONES
Contributing Writer

A woman in the front row bopped her head as Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” played; someone else in the room snapped their fingers.

Poet Avery R. Young described the song as a poem of witness, and he talked about how the song used poetic verse to tell the story of Withers’ grandmother.

“We find his humanity in the last two lines,” Young said.

The workshop with Young was just one of the features of this year’s Logan Center Blues Fest. In its second year, the festival sought to celebrate blues, its roots and its impact on music.

“Blues is always about a broken person,” Young said. “It’s the flawed human that is speaking. It’s not the narrative of the hero.”

Matthew Skoller, program director, said he had never visualized something and had it come to reality the way the Blues Fest had.

“To have the opportunity and resources to be able to bring in my colleagues and artists from other disciplines who are all at the top of their fields and who are all genuine artists is just awesome, in the literal sense of the word,” he said.

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tychimba Jess (below) as Jess reads from his award-winning volume about iconic blues musician Leadbelly at the U. of C. Blues Fest over the weekend. (Photos by Owen Lawson III)

Skoller said one of the highlights of the event was the presentation “Life Stories” by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Bill Sims, Jr.

“Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s piece on August Wilson, the blues and his collaboration with Bill Sims, Jr., was really a profound and enlightening experience for everybody in the room,” he said.

Another highlight for Skoller was the “Sanctified and Secular: Sisters in the Blues” with Ruthie Foster, Deitra Farr and Leanne Faine.

“There was unrelenting intensity of the Sisters in the Blues, where we explored the wide intersection where Blues and Gospel meet,” Skoller said. “And vocally, they are just three of the most sonically delicious voices.”

Skoller Said that it seemed that the attendees agreed.

“It’s all been accolades like ‘mind blowing,’ ‘one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen’ and ‘I have no words.’ These shows were spectacular shows,” he said. “To hear two solo performers play acoustically in this beautiful theater that was built for acoustic instruments was also sonically very beautiful.”

hpherald@hpherald.com