By Mark Guarino
Let’s assume not many people at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s 50th anniversary concert were in attendance at the school’s opening night: Nov. 29, 1957.
Didn’t matter. Original Old Town teacher Frank Hamilton — who was there — gave a sense of what a folk music hootenanny was like in the Eisenhower era: banjos, quick picking guitars, a big dollop of community love and group sing-a-longs to folk canon spirituals “Glory of Love” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
That the same took place, 50 years later, at Chicago’s grand Auditorium Theatre, to a crowd of nearly 4,000 people and not just a few dozen crammed into the school’s original space on West North Ave., is indicative of how far the Old Town has grown. The Old Town School was pivotal in the folk music revival of the early 1960’s when Chicago’s saloon culture and university intelligentsia intertwined, leading to a boom of singer-songwriters the following decade. Although any mention of the school is typically followed by a run-through of famous alumni — John Prine, Mike Bloomfield, Roger McGuinn, Steve Goodman and others — the Old Town is currently a place where Dolly Varden’s Steve Dawson can teach you guitar, Robbie Fulks records his “Secret Country” XM radio series, Jon Langford performs kids shows and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy regularly performs with a beginning guitar ensemble devoted to learning his songs.
Yet at the school’s big-moneyed benefit celebration, performers were of all stripes: teachers, students, veterans and stars. The wide swath of talent — dancers included — dressed the three-hour-plus show business casual. “This whole night seems to be about a continuum,” said Tweedy, who closed the show with a brief solo set and was later joined by Wilco Ensemble students. “I’m really glad Frank (Hamilton) taught Roger McGuinn the guitar because I wouldn’t be here.”
McGuinn and Hamilton reunited in the show’s first half, sitting side-by-side to play the Celtic folk song “Finnegan’s Wake.” The Byrds co-founder went deeper with solo country blues (“St. James Infirmary Blues”) and the Byrds standard “Eight Miles High,” unrecognizable thanks to McGuinn’s quicksilver fretwork that transitioned phrases from Indian ragas to flourishes of classical guitar, winning him the only standing ovation of the night.
The Old Town’s outreach to all genres is the reason why audiences watched Chicago blues veteran Lonnie Brooks perform gnarly electric blues followed by Sones de Mexico, a six-member Mexican ensemble that performed a Spanish-language, polyrhythmic version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” tweaking the Lou Dobbs component in the current immigration debate.
Despite the students and teachers who performed at the footlights, in the lobby and on the side balconies, the mainstage was reserved mainly for virtuosos. Folk-blues guitarist and legendary sideman David Bromberg appeared early, demonstrating his inventive fingerpicking style on songs by Big Bill Broonzy. Late in the evening he was matched by a banjo summit fronted by Bela Fleck and protégé Abigail Washburn of the folk-pop group Uncle Earl.
Fleck accompanied Washburn’s vocals, his playing jumping meters, fluttering in high registers, making odd chord changes and otherwise using the instrument as a voice and spiritual transmitter, both. On the spiritual “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” and — get this — a Chinese folk song sung in its native language, the pair blended together, contradicted one another and interacted playfully, with full command and feisty inventiveness.
The triple-stuffed bill could have been plucked, big-time, especially considering that Chicago’s all-stars — Langford, Fulks, Kelly Hogan, Sally Timms — got lumped together for just two songs. The group — cataloged as “The Bloodshot Family Band” — performed Alejandro Escovedo’s “Broken Bottle” and “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow” by The Carter Family. The evening built up to these performances but they were shut down soon after they began, a head-scratcher especially with Fulks — one of the most unconventional and versatile songwriters out of Chicago in decades — reduced to playing side man. With Chicago at the forefront of the roots music renaissance of recent years, call it an opportunity missed.
Tweedy performed his ending set in front of the footlights. He purposely sang high off the microphone, each word deliberately wrung. The songs — “Someone Else’s Song,” “Remember the Mountain Bed,” “Acuff-Rose” — were delicately performed like new discoveries. Then he stepped back onstage to join five Wilco students — “what would compel anyone, I have no idea,” he said. “What Light,” they sang together. Gentler, more docile than how Wilco meant it, but with no less heart.