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Sweet home Aurora: Top blues stars skip Chicago fest, head west

Buddy Guy performs Blues Fox 2011. A two-day pass suburban festival costs $15 or $50 as opposed free Chicago Blues

Buddy Guy performs at Blues on the Fox in 2011. A two-day pass to the suburban festival costs $15 or $50, as opposed to the free Chicago Blues Festival. | Corey R. Minkanic~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 26, 2013 1:27PM



Buddy Guy. Dr. John. Robert Randolph and the Family Band.

They sound like acts anyone would like to see at the 30th Annual Chicago Blues Festival.

But those are the headliners for the 17th Annual Blues on the Fox festival slated for June 14 and 15 during the inaugural weekend of RiverEdge Park in Aurora.

Blues on the Fox will be held the weekend after Chicago’s festival (June 6-9), where headliners include Shemekia Copeland, New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas, Chicago soul treasure Otis Clay and harmonica players James Cotton, Li’l Ed and Billy Branch. This year’s fest features 141 performances.

Nice fest.

Always free.

But it is still striving for the “world class” experience Mayor Rahm Emanuel is hoping will increase cultural tourism. Emanuel has said he wants to move Chicago up from No. 10 to among the five most popular U.S. cities for overseas travelers.

Blues on the Fox is presented by the Aurora Civic Center Authority, which owns the Paramount Theater and the Copley Theater and also has an agreement with the city to manage and program the 30-acre RiverEdge Park at 360 N. Broadway.

A two-day Blues on the Fox pass is $50 with preferred seating near the covered pavilion stage. The rest of the park is $15 for a two-day pass.

The new venue seats 10,500 people.

“Ideally we would be free,” said Tim Rater, president and CEO of the Aurora Civic Center Authority. “If this were not supported by the city as well as the Aurora Civic Center, then the prices would be higher [to see] these acts. We’re not looking to make money. We’re just looking to bring people downtown.”

Blues on the Fox 2013 operates on a quarter-million-dollar budget.

Contrary to popular thinking, the budget does not consist of support from the Hollywood Casino in Aurora. (The casino was a co-sponsor in 2010, the last time Guy headlined the Aurora festival.)

“The city does collect a head tax from the casino,” Rater said. “That’s $510,000 a year. We [the Aurora Civic Center Authority] are supported from the head tax, but it’s not specific to any event. Part of the reason we can afford to do a Buddy Guy is that we are charging a modest fee.”

Acts play where the money is. That is why it is called show business.

The Chicago Blues Festival added a Thursday night event to commemorate the its 30th anniversary. The June 6 opening will be held at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park with headliner Copeland and 14-year-old guitarist Quinn Sullivan, a Guy protege.

“We tried to get Buddy,” said Michelle Boone, commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

“There was a moderate increase in our budget,” she said. “Using the stage at Petrillo [the Grant Park bandshell] is about $100,000. We don’t have that with Millennium Park, not to say that it is free. But it is minimal.”

The estimated cost for an additional night of the blues in Millennium Park is $33,000, according to Boone’s office. The figure includes artist fees, production, city services, maintenance and park security. If the concert were held in Grant Park, the expense would roughly be the same as a full festival day as opposed to just an evening concert.

Boone said that the blues event, more than any of the city’s other music festivals, is “best positioned to be a platform for attracting international visitors.” She did not have a percentage of how many blues fest visitors are international but said unprecedented market research will be done at all the city’s festivals this summer.

Can the blues be redefined to draw larger audiences, much in the way the definition of jazz was loosened for the success of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival? After all, Billy Joel is headlining at jazz fest this weekend in New Orleans.

“We did think about people like Steve Earle,” Boone answered. “I had thrown out Ben Harper’s name before he started touring with Charlie Musselwhite. Our [15-member] blues committee are kind of purists. They are conscious about honoring the blues legends we have now. I think next year I’ll be open to bring in a new perspective.”

Two years ago Guy and Robert Cray attracted 15,000 people over the weekend to Blues on the Fox. Last year 12,000 fans saw headliners Kenny Wayne Shepard and the Neville Brothers.

“I’d say about 30 percent of the audience is from Aurora,” Rater said. “We have a higher local presence for this festival than for a traditional act at the Paramount Theatre, where the Aurora attendance is 15 percent. Aurora has an affinity for the blues with all its history.” In 1937 and 38 Big Bill Broonzy, Big Joe Williams and others recorded in a studio on the top floor of the 22-story Leland Hotel (now an apartment bulding) in downtown Aurora.

Rater said Blues on the Fox has 10 overall sponsors, the biggest being the Dunham Fund, the Rush Copley Medical Center and the City of Aurora.

A five-member Blues on the Fox Committee (which includes two Aurora area musicians) brings the proposed lineup to Rater, who books the festival. “We try to mix a little bit of the old with a bit of the new,” he said. “We try to do something that will surprise folks. I give them a lot of freedom.

“I’ve heard that the headliners for the Chicago Blues Festival are our opening acts. Everyone wants to play here. Buddy Guy was absolutely on our list. We were looking at Gary Clark. We try to get the very best available.”

Blues on the Fox booked the gritty J.J. Grey and Mofro to open the festival at 7 p.m. June 14, and blues cruise favorite Tommy Castro will be landlocked at 5 p.m. June 15, followed by a 7 p.m. set from Randolph. The grand finale starts at 9 p.m. with Guy in Aurora, instead of at Grant Park in Chicago.



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