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.”
Steve Morse can be reached at email@example.com.