Steve Earle / Gillian Welch & David Rawlings – Chicago Folk Center (Chicago, IL)
After Steve Earle opened with “Christmas In Washington”, we could just about have gone home. “Come back, Woody Guthrie,” he sang, invoking the spirit and purpose formerly associated with American folk music that has since seemed to dissipate into introspection and historic reproduction. The song at once captured the sense of loss, as well as the hope and promise, attached to the new Chicago Folk Center and its tenant, the Old Town School of Folk Music. With that one song, the Center’s new performance space was well and truly dedicated.
A Chicago institution for more than 40 years, the Old Town School has made its new, third home in a vintage library building nowhere near its original Old Town neighborhood home. Still, it hews close to its founders’ intent, which was to enable regular folks to perform music. The new site offers double the teaching space of the school’s former facility, at least quadruple the retail space for instruments and records, and at last a proper concert space for the performances that attract thousands to the school yearly.
The hall’s inaugural season will feature, through December, almost 50 traditional American folk and ethnic music acts ranging from Sweet Honey In The Rock to the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, from Los Tres Reyes to Richie Havens. Perhaps the most intriguing single bill will pair sets by Jon Langford and Guy Clark.
On the Center’s inaugural weekend, Earle was an inspired last-minute substitute for Richard Thompson, who had to bow out of his second-night slot. The night before, Joni Mitchell had headlined the new theater’s debut, with Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) opening.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings turned in a picture-perfect opener for Earle. Dressed as if for a Depression-era radio performance, they covered the vintage ground between country blues, folk, bluegrass and Tin Pan Alley. A late start cut short their set so that songs from their first record, Revival, slightly dominated. The crowd was treated to just one song that featured Welch on banjo (“Rock Of Ages”), although she composed several songs on her latest release, Hell Among The Yearlings, on the instrument.
“I can kinda tell the room is new,” Welch quipped. “It needs a little breaking in.” Head leaning low to the guitar neck, gently rocking in a side-to-side march to the beat, she then warmed the theater with “Barroom Girls”, followed by the chilling “Annabelle”, about the enigmatic death of a child spared a life of misery. Rawlings’ intricate guitar work and delicate harmony introduced variations on the recorded versions that rewarded close attention. In their encore, Welch and Rawlings provided a blessing for the new space with their gospel tune “By The Mark”.