CHICAGO — As the natives like to say, this city is associated with deep-dish pizza, Al Capone, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey — and, of course, the blues. Chicago has often been called the home of the blues. Such locals as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Willie Dixon stand out as important influences on the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and so many other rock luminaries.
While blues clubs are declining nationally, they are still going strong in Chicago, which I confirmed on a recent pilgimage. The classic blues hit “Sweet Home Chicago’’ is still heard throughout the city.
“The blues is on the upswing here,’’ says Toronzo Cannon, a guitarist who backed a galvanizing singer named Ms. Peachez at Buddy Guy’s Legends club when I checked in. It was the first of four club stops in a weekend stay capped by a visit to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, which is now a museum but was home to Chess Records when Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and others recorded there. It was also where Chuck Berry cut “Johnny B. Goode,” Aretha Franklin made her first gospel album, and the Rolling Stones did one of their early albums.
But first, Buddy’s Legends. Located on the South Side, it’s a surprisingly modern, 500-capacity spot (his former site was much smaller) and also serves Cajun soul food, which is appropriate since Buddy grew up in Louisiana before moving to Chicago as a young man. The club is a veritable shrine to him. It houses his Grammy awards, guitars, and a host of other instruments donated by the likes of Keith Richards, B.B. King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And all over the room are photos of Buddy and other greats, along with lesser-known but beloved figures like Koko Taylor, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Front and center on this night, though, is Ms. Peachez, a South Side powerhouse whose old-school voice transfixes the many international fans who have come for a taste of the blues. Ms. Peachez hits on some vintage blues themes — not wanting to be treated mean by her man, not wanting to be cheated on — before climaxing with an emotional treatment of Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason.” Fans jump up from tables and crowd around her for photos at the end. There’s a warm atmosphere in the room, no doubt thanks to Guy, who often pops up unannounced to play. Just a few months ago, he showed up with B.B. King and George Benson to jam — all for the basic cover price of $10. You don’t go broke in the clubs here.
Next up is Blue Chicago on Clark Street, a more traditional, roadhouse-style club with scuffed floors, chipped walls, and a serious blues shouter in Shirley Johnson, who has played here for 20 years. She originally came from Norfolk, Va., and her grandfather ran a liquor still. She is stirring up a multi-aged crowd of dancers and a special buzz starts when she sings “Sweet Home Chicago.” It feels different to hear the song in its natural setting. Johnson tours internationally — she just returned from Belgium — but she is a Chicago resource. “I’m still working as much as ever,” she says.
After dusting myself off the next morning (the clubs run late here), I head to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation at 2120 South Michigan Ave. It’s a famous address — the Stones even recorded a song by this title. So, not surprisingly, I run into three British fellows who have come over for their own pilgrimage. “We love the history of the blues more than most Americans,’’ says one of them. And it’s hard to deny that. When we meet the tour guide, Kevin Mabry, they seem to know nearly as much as he does. The Brits are also renting a convertible to drive the entire length of the fabled blues highway Route 66. It’s a trip of a lifetime for them.
A 45-minute documentary movie highlights the Blues Heaven visit. It recounts the magic of Chess Studios, and how millions of African-Americans migrated from the South seeking work after World War II. Rural, acoustic blues evolved into urban, electric blues, which was shot into overdrive at Chess. Mick Jagger is interviewed in the film, while Stone bandmate Ron Wood has some of his paintings mounted on the wall.
It’s a small, unassuming building and the former studio is on the second floor, no longer functional and its equipment removed. The museum is run by Marie Dixon, whose late husband, Willie, wrote more than 500 songs including “Hoochie Coochie Man’’ and “Red Rooster.” There’s also some memorabilia such as Waters’s tour jacket and Bo Diddley’s stage shoes. It could be better organized — some displays are in disarray and poorly lighted — but the historic vibe is unmistakable.
There’s a gift shop, too, which I hit hard.
That night, I take a cab to the North Side to sample the succinctly named B.L.U.E.S. and, just down the street, the funky Kingston Mines (open until 4 a.m. on Saturday night). I start with B.L.U.E.S. and immediately get swept in. It’s another roadhouse gem: small with a narrow, bowling-alley feel with a teeming bar on the right and a riser with tables and chairs on the left. The band is the rocking Big Time Sarah & the BTS Express. She’s a veteran singer who used to be Sunnyland Slim’s wife (you’ve got to love those blues nicknames). She’s getting up there in age and sits out part of the set, but all of a sudden rips into Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly’’ and nearly brings the house down. A band member asks for a show of hands to see who had come to the club for the first time — and about 25 percent put them up.
“There’s a lot of tourist traffic that still comes to Chicago for the blues,” says Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune music critic. “It has kept the clubs very active. We call it ‘tourist blues,’ but it’s thriving.’’
My final stop is Kingston Mines, an earthy mainstay that is really two clubs in one. Bands alternate in each room and much of the mixed-age crowd follows them from room to room. It’s like a mini-festival. Tonight’s acts are Joanna Connor and Big James & the Chicago Playboys. Both are excellent. Connor has a more rocking feel (she adds songs by the Stones and Beatles) and Big James exudes a Marvin Gaye-like soul-blues.
Kingston Mines is as unpretentious as it gets. Drinks are cheap (there are nightly “Bucket Specials” where you can get four or five beers in an iced bucket) and food is served in back at a casual takeout counter called Doc’s Rib Joint. It offers a “half slab” of ribs for $15.25 and a “full slab” for $20.75.
“There’s a vibrant blues scene in Chicago,’’ says Connor between sets. “It’s one reason I’m not traveling as much anymore. The world now comes to us rather than us having to go to them.”