By Connor Carynski
The 34th annual Chicago Blues Festival maintained its title as the nation’s largest blues festival and its change of venue seemed to please most attendees and performers, even if many said a little fine tuning is needed going forward.
Running from June 9-11, the festival moved from its longtime location of Grant Park to the smaller but more modern Millennium Park, a move that Mark Kelly, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said was long overdue.
“We went from the worst sound system in the world to the best,” Kelly said, while also conceding that because it was the first year in the new location it was a learning process for the city.
“We’ll make a million little tweaks. I think we can move Rosa’s stage and do a few other things but overall we are thrilled with the feedback.”
The three day event showcased performances from musicians such as Gary Clark Jr., Ronnie Baker Brooks, William Bell and many others. Six main stages were spread throughout the park grounds along with aisles of merchandise tents. For food, there were a half dozen food trucks along with the Parkside Grill, options that many said were inadequate.
The new location, announced in January, left many long-time festival goers questioning how Millennium Park — which covers 24.5 acres compared to Grant’s 319 — would be able to harbor the massive crowds that have annually shown out in the hundreds of thousands.
Joyce “Cookie” Threatt, the daughter of famous blues singer Koko Taylor and co-operator of the Koko Taylor Celebrity Aid Foundation, said she preferred the festival’s Grant Park setting because it offered more room for people walk between stages. Threatt said the lack of space may have caused less people to turn out for this year’s festival and there is still work to be done for future festivals.
“The crowd size is smaller this year as opposed to last,” Threatt said. “It’s still the same festival but it will take some getting used to.”
The number of daily attendees for this year’s festival have yet to be released but hundreds of thousands were estimated to have tuned out for the event, according to Mary May, spokesperson for the city’s department of cultural affairs. Capacity for the fest’s main stage — the Jay Pritzker Pavillion is about 11,000 versus 35,000 for the main stage for the Grant Park location — the James C. Petrillo Music Shell.
Crowd capactity may have been less, but most cited the better sound as a welcome change and an improvement in amenities with the welcome change from portable toilets to indoor plumbing, although lines at times for the bathrooms were lengthy. And crowd congestion outside the pavillion’s lawn made navigating between the side stages more difficult than in the past.
Bruce Iglauer, head of Alligator Records and one of the most prominent figures in Blues, said he’d like to see a few tweaks made but overall was satisfied.
“The Budweiser Crossroads Stage can be moved back and there isn’t enough food, but overall it’s been good,” Iglauer said.
Sitting on the lawn to the west of the Pritzker Pavillion, north of the Budweiser Crossroads Stage and Southeast from the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage, 50-year-old Bogdan Szafranick of Avondale said it was hard for him to focus on one band, as he could hear music from 2 of the 3 nearby stages. Although he said the city should address the problem, he blamed himself for where he was situated and said he was glad the fest was moved to Millennium Park.
“I’m sitting on the 50-yard line so that’s what happens,” Szafranick said of the bands competing for his ears. “That said, the venue is unbelievable. I’ve been to fests in Munich, in Berlin and in London and I haven’t seen anything as nice as this.”
A South Georgia native and blues player, Clarence Lewis attended last year’s Chicago Blues Festival and said he was blown away by the talent he saw from performers and was eager to attend again this year. Lewis said out of the many national blues events he has attended, Chicago’s is the mother of all blues festivals.
Before coming to Chicago for this year’s festival Lewis was aware the location had been changed but was unconcerned.
“I didn’t think anything of it when I heard about the switch but when I showed up the first day everything got way too crowded,” Lewis said. “There’s too many people coming off the street at Millennium and crowd things up but at Grant Park everything was tucked away from the city and everyone had more space.”
Playing his second year at the festival, percussionist for Rosa’s Lounge house band in Chicago, Kenny Coleman said having the festival situated closer to the city may have actually increased this year’s turnout by drawing in people who may have not even known the festival was there.
“Access may be better in Millennium since it is so close to the city and is easier for people to get here,” Coleman said. “You really had to walk to get out to Grant Park. When you went, you knew you better be ready for a marathon.”
54-year-old Bridgeport resident Michael Cooper who has attended the festival since he was in his twenties and said he sees both pros and cons to the venue change. Cooper cited the smaller space as a disadvantage but enjoyed being able to bring in food and beverages into Millennium Park, items not allowed in previous years at Grant Park.
“It’s great that you can bring things into Millennium without getting stopped at the gate,” Cooper said. “The stages are more modern as well so the sound is better. Change can be good so I’ll keep coming unless something drastically changes.”
Elements of the new venue still need to be changed according to Blues Festival planning committee member and founder of the BluesKids Foundation, Fernando Jones, but he considers this year’s festival an overall success. Jones said he predicts the fest will continue to be held in Millennium Park in future years.
“Things are new and it’s scary for those who have been coming to this for a while but it’s really just a new opportunity for improvement,” Jones said.