Huge kudos to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs (DCASE) for kicking off Blues Fest weekend with a stellar show at the Ramova Theatre in the Bridgeport neighborhood.

The free concert, a double bill with Ronnie Baker Brooks and Shemekia Copeland, provided a full slate of priceless memories and magical moments for all who were lucky enough to attend.

The recently restored Ramova Theatre served as the perfect backdrop for this Chicago-centric event. This theatre was built in 1929 but was shut down in 1985 and laid dormant until 2017 when developers Tyler and Emily Nevius purchased the property for a dollar from the City of Chicago. With an investment team that includes local artists Jennifer Hudson, Chance the Rapper and Quincy Jones, it’s easy to see why a stunning 1,500 seat live music space was a vital part of the Ramova’s revitalization.

In true Chicago fashion, the crowd showed up early to nab the best seats in the house and reconnect with blues-loving buddies. The Chicago Blues Festival has often been described as an annual reunion and the vibe at the Ramova Theatre reflected this.

It was a sentiment that was shared by the featured artists as well. In a pre-show interview on WBEZ, Baker Brooks noted that “the energy is one of the best in the world.” He added, “I’ve lived here all my life so it’s like a homecoming for me every June.”

As the son of the legendary bluesman Lonnie Brooks, the younger Brooks recalls seeing his father perform with Luther Allison at the old Chicago Fest. He also has vivid memories of joining his dad on tour with luminaries like BB King, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor and many others. Baker Brooks said his dad continues to be his main musical influence and the elder Brooks’ life lessons have had a major impact on Baker Brooks’ career.

Baker Brooks certainly did his daddy proud during his turn on stage at the Ramova. Following an impassioned introduction by emcee Tom Marker, Baker Brooks came out with a smoking hot set.  Whether it was serving up his take on songs made famous by the old masters or turning in fine versions of his own compositions like “Born in Chicago,” Baker Brooks was all over the blues board in the best possible way.

Baker Brooks also learned about the importance of collaboration from his dad. After he further energized the audience by coming off the stage and playing “Sweet Home Chicago” around the radius of the Ramova, he brought on brother Wayne Baker Brooks and harmonica ace Billy Branch. They lit into an incredible version of “Miss You,” which brought the crowd energy up another notch.

After Baker Brooks and company had wowed the crowd with their take on the Rolling Stones classic, it was time for a short break. During this proverbial pause for the cause, people in the bar area, beer garden and beyond were happily buzzing about all the fantastic first-half action.

Tom Marker came back on and in his familiar dulcet tones, proudly announced that it was time for Shemekia Copeland to take the stage. That brought on the multi-talented vocalist and songwriter who confidently strolled out, ready to rule the Ramova.

Like the Brooks brothers, Copeland is a second-generation musician. Her dad was Texas bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland and she jammed with him at the legendary Cotton Club at the tender age of eight. Following a great rendition of the Ray Wylie Hubbard-penned “Barefoot in Heaven,” she gave a musical nod to her father with his “Nobody but You.” In addition to this homage to the senior Copeland, she poured her heart out on “Great Rain” in honor of a man “I loved so much,” John Prine.

Copeland continued to showcase her diverse catalog with everything from the humorous, country-style “Fell in Love with a Honky” to socially conscious songs like the modern-day civil rights anthem “Walk Before I Ride” and “Clotilda’s on Fire,” which is about the last slave ship to come into the U.S. Both songs were off her 2020 Grammy-nominated Uncivil War release. She jokingly added that despite the committee “nominating the sh** out of me,” she has yet to win a Grammy.

Copeland has yet another Alligator release coming out later this year, so it’s safe to say that there could be more Grammy nods coming her way. Baker Brooks recently signed on with the same label, so one can only hope that these old friends have more opportunities to collaborate in the future. This spirit of the old-school Chicago musical match up was on full display when the Baker Brooks brothers and Billy Branch returned to the main stage to join Copeland in an exhilarating final jam session.

At the time, the audience was unaware that this same group of talented musicians would be returning to the Pritzker Stage at Millennium Park to help close out “Buddy Guy Day” at the 2024 Chicago Blues Festival. But that’s a story for another installment of American Blues Scene so stay tuned for additional updates from our weekend at Blues Fest!