‘At-home’ blues concerts helps artists, plus North Lawndale’s Community Arts Center

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Like virtually every other physical event in 2020, the Chicago Blues Boot Camp had to make a digital pivot due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The modest, four-year-old operation typically piggybacked on the international audience of the Chicago Blues Festival, and 14 of its 28 students in 2019 were visiting from outside the US.

The move to digital space has allowed for some expansion, however, with this summer’s launch of the “At Home Chicago Blues” series, including the Trading 4s concert series. Since late May, owner and manager Scott Weil has been organizing “pay what you can” bi-weekly shows on the first and third Thursdays of the month featuring Chicago blues musicians.

The concerts’ virtual tip jar benefits the performers, and portions also go to each of the Firehouse Community Art Center in North Lawndale and, on a national level, the Blues Foundation’s COVID-19 relief fund for performing blues artists.

Thursday’s show features a set and conversation with electric blues guitarist Toronzo Cannon (also of longtime Chicago blues label Alligator Records), plus acoustic slide guitarist Donna Herula, vocalist Katherine Davis and electric bassist Harlan Terson.

Toronzo Cannon, a CTA bus driver and blues musician, performs Saturday at the 22nd annual Blues on the Fox festival.
Toronzo Cannon, a CTA bus driver and blues musician, performs Saturday at the 22nd annual Blues on the Fox festival. (Marilyn Stringer)

The shows so far have been a success. After hoping for about 2,000 viewers — an arbitrary number for success, Weil admits — each show has drawn about 9.000 viewers from blues fans throughout the world.

Dave Specter, blues artist and co-owner of SPACE in Evanston, co-hosts each episode of the series and handles the booking responsibilities. His fellow host is Pastor Phil Jackson, who runs the Firehouse Community Arts Center.

Following the police killing of George Floyd in late May, Pastor Jackson spoke via Zoom at Am Shalom Synagogue in Glencoe, where Weil attends service. Weil said he was struck by what Jackson shared about a lack of resources in North Lawndale, particularly the lack of food deliveries to the neighborhood following protests and unrest over Floyd’s killing.

“Once Phil told us what is going on in Lawndale, I said, “we’ve got to include these people too,‘” Weil said. “I also want to make people aware of what goes on 10 minutes from our house.”

Since then, the Blues Camp has been matching 20% of each event’s tip jar in donations to the Firehouse Community Arts Center. The center’s mission is “to interrupt the cycle of violence among youth and young adults in North Lawndale through the power of the arts and faith.” It’s also been helping to feed hundreds of local residents this summer, according to Weil.

The Trading 4s schedule has been determined through the end of this year, and past shows are available to view anytime online. Weil is also working to create some takeout food and drink packages with local restaurants to pair with the shows.

The Blues Boot Camp also plans to host a longer online festival on August 30, a collaborative effort with the Kalamazoo Valley Blues Festival out of Michigan.

Donations can be made at any time on the website.