It's a bleak midwinter's Saturday night in Chicago when I arrive at Buddy Guy's Legends club, and three things are immediately obvious. The rest of my party (those with the tickets) haven't arrived; an aspiring blues musician (with a CD out "hopefully next year") is singing with gusto, knowing what an honour it is to play on this hallowed stage; and the club is decorated with guitars once played by Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Tom Petty.
George "Buddy" Guy isn't a household name in Australia, but he's considered one of the most influential exponents of the Chicago blues style. Rolling Stone ranked him 23rd in its list of the "100 geatest gitarists of all time".
Given permission to wait at the bar until my colleagues with the tickets arrive, I head for an empty seat where I'm confronted by two big bodyguards. At first I can't hear them, because the blues drummer is making the most of his one chance to shine. However one of them eventually shouts loud enough: "You can't sit there! Can't you see Buddy's doing an interview?"
Can that guy, nursing a bottle of bourbon, really be THE Guy, Blues legend? At 83, how can he even hear the interviewer's questions, let alone answer them? Born in Louisiana, Guy made an instant impact in 1957 when he moved to Chicago and met Muddy Waters, BB King and Howlin' Wolf and was picked up by Chicago's legendary Chess label.
But it took a white Englishman to make Buddy a star. In 1991 Eric Clapton invited Guy to be a special guest on his 24 Nights album, recorded over 24 concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall. (This is the sort of cultural knowledge you learn by osmosis in Chicago.)
To learn more about musical styles that had their roots in Chicago Ivisit an exhibition at the city's Cultural Centre housed in a building that used to be the public library. "Before there was jazz, before there were the blues, Chicago was the city of ragtime," explains an exhibit. that tells how the musical style was first heard at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. "Ragtime came to Chicago by way of African-American musicians from diverse backgrounds and places of origin," it continues. Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, was one of those musicians who came north after travelling the south as an itinerant musician.
Other musical pioneers whose careers are connected to the city include Ferdinard "Jelly Roll" Morton, Florence Mills ("the Queen of Happiness") and Joseph "King" Oliver, creator of the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band. In 1922, King Oliver needed an extra cornet player and chose "a young, gangly, poorly dressed" musician from New Orleans. His name? Louis Armstrong. Blues and jazz are just two of the Afro-American art forms this musical midwife of a city has delivered.
"If the blues are a reaction to the struggles of everyday life, gospel talks about the solution," says our ebullient African-American "preacher" next morning as he opens the Sunday Gospel Brunch at Chicago's House of Blues. There are 12 House of Blues venues in the US, the first opening in 1992 in the unlikely setting of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The motto seems to be "feed your belly while you feed your soul" and southern food dominates. Buffet plates are piled high with the kind of food that killed Elvis: fried chicken and waffles smothered with berries, whipped cream, maple syrup and bacon.
The atmosphere at the show-church service is infectious and by the end even the most most timid atheists (me among them) stand in the aisles, clapping, dancing and shouting hallelujah.
Put it down to seeing Buddy Guy perform in person at his own club the previous night. I'd been part of an interview upstairs, and somehow missed the announcement the great man was playing downstairs. But what I can report is that when I got downstairs and sat down at our table, a lean, elderly guitarist performed to rapturous applause. His voice, stage presence, audience rapport and sense of humour suggests he's done this one or two times before. Is it Buddy? That ability to summon a double bourbon from the bar while performing a complicated riff proves it is.
Steve Meacham was a guest of Air New Zealand.
Air New Zealand flies three times a week each way from Auckland to Chicago non-stop, with multiple connections from Australian cities See airnewzealand.com.au
The Langham Chicago in housed in a skyscraper and has views of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. See langhamhotels.com
Chicago Cultural Centre has free exhibitions and performances. See cityofchicago.org
Chicago's House of Blues Gospel Brunch is on Sundays at 10am. See houseofblues.com/chicago/gospelbrunch
Buddy Guy's Legends features blues artists performing most nights. See buddyguy.com