You know I love the blues. Besides being a part of my heritage, I really respond to the tangible emotions that run through the music, from joy and raunchiness, to melancholy and regret. You have not experienced the real Chicago until you have felt the embrace of live blues late at night, in a dark room filled with liquor fumes and laughter. You can catch Chicago blues on any night of the week in many neighborhoods but all blues clubs are not created equal. Beer selection and a convenient location don’t make a great blues club, the music and the atmosphere does. I often get asked about the best Chicago blues clubs to visit so here are my personal picks for the best spots to hear high quality blues, like sets by blues divas Deitra Farr, Nellie Travis and Peaches Staten, above.
1. Rosa’s Lounge
The warmth of this small neighborhood joint extends from the gregarious Italian-born owner Tony Mangiullo, to the musicians and regulars who greet visitors like long lost friends. Adding to the homey vibe,Tony’s mother Rosa runs the bar and serves up homemade pasta on designated nights. As a blues drummer, Mangiullo shows a keen eye for booking local blues legends like James Wheeler as well as cutting edge stars like Melvin Taylor and Deitra Farr.
2. Buddy Guy’s Legends
Owned by the legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy himself, Legends is the place to hear energetic sets by local and international performers like acclaimed singer/songwriter Shemekia Copeland, above. The back walls are lined with the signed guitars of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Carlos Santana and B.B. King and the spacious room is always packed so come early. Sample Cajun specialties from the lunch and dinner menu and expect to dance, sing or at least clap along to the music.
3. Artis’s Lounge
Technically, Artis’s isn’t strictly a blues bar since house, stepper’s music, R&B and karaoke find their way into the mix during the week. It’s Sunday and Monday nights that this lively, South Side spot jumps with so much blues spirit that it makes up for that little detail. Covered in mirrors and accented by a circular bar, Artis’s hosts blues harp master Billy Branch pictured above, on Monday nights, attracting fellow blues musicians to sit in along with a full house. Don’t miss the jukebox stuffed with blues and soul classics.
4. Blue Chicago
This intimate pub stands out as a showcase for talented blues women. It’s a rare night that Blue Chicago doesn’t focus on the wide-ranging skills of local blues singers like Grana Louise, Peaches Staten and Demetria Taylor. Drop in for a celebration of female blues voices in a relaxed setting. Sweaty dancing and on stage washboard playing are optional.
One of Chicago’s oldest blues clubs, this North Side Mecca is also one of the rowdiest, with two stages and crowds that veer towards frat boy antics. If you can overlook the offstage behavior, you can enjoy the onstage offerings that typically include a solid line-up of touring blues stars like Sugar Blue and The Kinsey Report, with engaging local singers like Nellie “Tiger” Travis. Doc’s Rib Joint menu adds even more fun to the experience.
6. Lee’s Unleaded Blues
Declaring itself “Chicago’s Favorite juke joint,” this lounge lives up to its name with a dimly lit, rectangular space perched on an out-of-the way corner of the South Side. Locals have flocked to Lee’s since the 70s and there’s a heavy old school charm that floods the shag-carpeted room, pictured above. Listen to regulars like Sir Walter Scott or up and coming acts like Toronzo Cannon.