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The Blues Aren’t Dead. Just Ask Melody Angel

As a teenager in Chicago, Angel dreamed of playing the Blues Fest. This weekend, she’ll headline for the third year in a row.

Photo: John O'Hagen

Melody Angel plays like its her last gig.

That’s because, for years, the singer and guitarist wasn’t sure if her passion would pay off. Even in her hometown, where she applied to play Blues Fest beginning at age 16, Angel (her real name) was turned down for nearly a decade.

Today, though, Angel is booked around the world for her signature blend of rock, R&B, and soul. The Chicago Reader recently called her called her “the future of the blues.”

Growing up in Chatham and the south suburbs, Angel credits her career, at least in part, to her mother, a church chorister who bought Angel her first guitar. (She still plays on that instrument, a purple Fender Stratocaster.)

Now 29 and living in Bronzeville, Angel has three studio albums under her belt, as well as acting credits at the Goodman and Court Theatres and in a short film called Knockout, which earned Best Picture at last year’s 48 Hour Film Fest and a screening at Cannes. But Chicagoans might know her best from her band’s weekly gigs at Rosa’s Lounge in Logan Square

A few days ahead of her performance at the Chicago Blues Festival, I talked to Angel about her music, acting, and playing in her hometown.

Angels and Melodies, released earlier this year.

You “blame” — or credit, whichever word you want to use — Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince for your obsession. Who introduced you to their music?

Actually, I did, via YouTube. My mom was more into R&B and soul and I was more interested in guitar, so I looked up everyone who played guitar.

How old were you when you first got hooked?

The first movie I saw with someone playing guitar was Purple Rain when I was seven or eight years old. After that, I saw a lot of stuff on MTV. Lenny Kravitz’s video for “Are You Gonna Go My Way” was big with me. That led me to look him up on YouTube and find others, when I was probably 11 or 12.

How was your love of guitar-driven music received by your peers growing up?

I didn’t really have a lot of friends growing up. I was a different kind of kid, obviously. Everyone else was listening to Destiny’s Child and Usher, Nelly, and all the hip-hop people, and I was listening the Foo Fighters. I just loved what I loved, and I’m happy that my mom said “You’re different, and it’s okay.” If I tried to fit in, I would have never became what I am, because I would never have stepped out of that box.

You don’t play traditional blues or traditional rock, if there even is such a thing. How would you describe your music?

I really feel like it’s old-school rock and roll. It’s more like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, that vibe. Real rock and roll has a big blues influence, and that’s my favorite type of music. I could listen to Chuck Berry and Little Richard all day long.

You made a documentary [Black Girl Rock] about yourself in 2017. What prompted that?

A lot of unknown artists in today’s music industry will create a blog, but I had more to say than that. I wanted to talk about my community as a whole — what we need to be thinking about, what we need to be focused on. It was an opportunity for me to do that.

As much as the film is about you, it’s also a social commentary. You use clips of James Baldwin. If there was one message from it, what would you say it is?

That life is a real struggle. A lot of times for young, black people, we don’t know what to do with all the anger and rage that we feel because of how differently we’re treated. I wanted my community to know that there are things they can do, books they can read, and people they can look up to and into like James Baldwin, who taught us that there is a way to prevail over racism and inequality.

You’ve talked about the struggle to survive as an artist, playing gigs for $40 and barely making rent. What’s kept you going?

You either love it or you don’t. Not too many people know exactly what they want to do their whole lives, but I’ve never had any other thought or dream. I’ve only ever loved music. It’s everything and I can’t imagine a life without it. I’ll be doing music for the rest of my life, whether it’s in my bedroom or on stage somewhere.

You’ve also been acting, both on stage and on the screen. How did that happen?

Kind of on accident. I was asked to come to a Goodman Theatre audition for a play called Father Comes Home From the Wars, because they were looking for a guitar player. So, I just went in there to play guitar, and then they wanted me to sing and to also do a scene. I was like, “Okay…” The director saw something in me and said I was a natural. That opened up something that I didn’t know I had. I got an agent and ended up getting asked to audition for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow is Enuf at the Court Theatre, and got that.

Does playing the Blues Fest in your hometown have any special significance?

Oh yeah. I’ve submitted to play at Blues Fest since I was 16 years old. It wasn’t until 2016 that I got on it for the first time. It was something that I dreamed about as a teenager and now this will be my third year playing it. So, it really shows that hard work pays off.

Blues has been described as a dying art — obits for the genre have been written for several years now. What’s your take on that?

I understand how people say that, but really it’s the core of American music. There is no genre that hasn’t been and isn’t still being influenced by the blues. You can’t have the branches without the tree and the roots.

Melody Angel plays the Chicago Blues Fest at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Budweiser Crossroads Stage at Millennium Park.

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