Friends of the Blues kicks off 13th season

April 6, 2019

James Walker never has been the superstitious kind. That’s a good thing for Walker, of Watseka, who will help usher in the 13th season of Friends of the Blues live music shows in greater Kankakee.

“It will be good to do some shows again,” said Walker, who co-founded the FOTB in 2006 with D’Arcy Ballinger. “I’m not physically able to to the 18 or so shows we used to do, but we can do seven or eight.”

The Chris O’Leary Band kicks off the season with a 7 p.m. Tuesday concert at the Manteno Sportsmen’s Club. Five more shows will follow O’Leary at venues from L’Erable and Gilman to Bourbonnais and Kankakee.

“There’s a lot of excitement on social media about our upcoming season,” Walker said.

The number 13 always has been a lucky one for Walker, a retired school teacher from Donovan Junior and Senior High schools.

“I graduated from the eighth grade in a class of 13 [students] from a little rural school near Fairfield,” said Walker, who eventually graduated from Eastern Illinois University in 1972.

Walker taught government, economics and English at Donovan for 28 years before retiring in 2005. He always has had a love for the blues, even though he was not a musician himself.

“I have a lot of respect for the touring artist,” he said. “I don’t understand how they can do it at all. ... Really, this business is all about supply and demand. There’s a lot of recording artists out there now and a lot of competition.”

Walker also said there are fewer venues available now for the touring musician and other venues that don’t feature live music. But the FOTB has been able to survive by giving the area’s blues fans a show at an affordable price.

“It is all about the music, not the money,” Walker said. “While the various venues where performances are held are expected to make a profit from a show, the ‘Friends’ themselves are lucky enough to not need profits to put food on their tables. [Our] goal is simply to cover all costs and put a little away in an emergency fund.”

The Friends are a group of loosely organized, live-music-loving Baby Boomers who have been hosting music events in the Kankakee area. During the course of the previous 12 seasons, the “Friends” have promoted 185 live music shows, featuring artists from five countries and 18 U.S. states.

Walker was surprised by the success of the local blues club.

“I thought that, kind of like a new restaurant, after the initial infatuation wore off, attendance and interest would die down, and we would stop,” he said. “But, here we are 12 years later, and average attendance is the highest ever.

“While some early attendees have dropped out, moved away or even died, new fans keep arriving. Our average paid-at-the-door attendance for our shows in Kankakee, Bradley, Bourbonnais, L’Erable, Gilman and Manteno has grown from 78 in 2008 to 157 in 2018.”

Rather than call the FOTB shows gigs, Walker refers to them as special events. There’s an emcee for the shows, and the musicians are top-notch artists making a stop on a national or international tour. Tickets are about $10, there are door prizes, and shows start at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

In addition, the “Friends” do not have meetings, dues to pay, officers to elect or membership rolls to maintain. It simply asks fans attend the next event, and all live-music fans are welcome.

O’Leary is enjoying a well-deserved spot at the top. His just released, fifth studio album, “7 Minutes Late,” held the No. 1 spot on the Roots Music Report’s Top 50 Blues Albums for the week of Feb. 9. Having been No. 2 the previous week, he bumped out Buddy Guy’s Grammy-winning CD for that top spot.

With 12 new, original, fractured tales of hope and despair on the album, O’Leary’s songwriting and his impassioned singing and harmonica work are on full display on this latest release on the American Showplace label, according to a Friends’ news release.

Walker said he is looking forward to Tuesday at Manteno Sportsmen’s Club, 851 N. Main St. Admission is $10 and food and beverages will be available for purchase.

“It will be great to get out, and I’m sure there’s some people with cabin fever from another brutal winter,” he said.

O’Leary is from upstate New York and is a seven-year U.S. Marine veteran. He was the singer-harp player for Grammy-award winner Levon Helm’s band, The Barnburners, for six years.

“The Chris O’Leary Band offers a virtual encyclopedia of roadhouse Blues styles, from Boogie Woogie to Southside Chicago electric rockin’ to Louisiana Mardi Gras stompers,” wrote Jonathan Takiff, of the Philadelphia Daily News.

Two newcomers to the FOTB lineup this year are Jeremiah Johnson on April 18 and Ben Levin with Marty Binder on June 4. Making return engagements are Frank Bang, Nouveau Honkies and the always-popular Albert Castiglia.

“Jeremiah Johnson is from St. Louis and very popular,” Walker said. “I’m expecting a big turnout for that one.”