Tribute To Steve Goodman – Medinah Temple (Chicago, IL)
By today’s standards, celebrating 40 years of anything is a significant milestone deserving of a significant celebration. So Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music celebrated its 40th anniversary and its plan to move to a larger, more modern facility with a benefit concert honoring the memory of one of its own, Steve Goodman, who died of leukemia at the age of 36 in 1984. Benefit organizers rounded up a top-notch roster of performers, including Jackson Browne, Iris DeMent, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Kathy Mattea, John Prine and Todd Snider, for a sold-out show at the city’s venerable Medinah Temple.
The evening opened with video clips of Goodman from the early ’70s and ’80s, playing some of his signature songs. The passages showed Goodman at his best: energetic, sardonically funny, and clearly loving the performing life, with a grinning, engaging style that never faded, even as the leukemia that killed him took its toll. The illness may have claimed Goodman’s life, but it never dampened his spirit.
With such a large group of performers, each artist was limited to one Goodman cover and then a song or two of their own. Iris DeMent led off, seeming very ill at ease. Nervously telling the crowd that “other singers used to tell me that they dreaded having to follow Steve,” she had a hard time getting through the opening bars of Goodman’s “If She Were You”. For someone with such a strong and lovely voice, DeMent’s singing seemed forced rather than relaxed, even when performing her own “Our Town”.
Todd Snider then took the stage and quickly had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. Boyishly charming and grinning from ear to ear, he won the crowd over with his exuberance and wry sense of humor, especially when performing his own response to the Woodstock generation, “My Generation (Part 2)”. At one point, Snider said he had to take a step back to celebrate the fact that he “doesn’t usually get to play in places this big.” His version of “This Hotel Room” did justice to the humor that was a hallmark of Goodman’s songs.
Next up was Kathy Mattea, who was eloquent in her praise of Goodman as an inspiration for nurturing her own passion for music. Her performance was pleasant, if unexceptional; Mattea is a consistent performer who generally gets the job done.
The crowd really came to life when Lyle Lovett took the stage. Something about Lovett’s stage presence — so polite and so serious he’s almost reverent — seems to add to the overall beauty of his lyrics and the careful execution of every syllable, especially during Goodman’s “I Can’t Help Falling In Love”. He seemed to get a little caught up in the moment during his third number, when he asked the crowd to join in on the song’s chorus, saying he’d never asked an audience to do that before. Lovett’s performance was filled with emotion and, unfortunately, much too short.
In a treat that might only be truly appreciated by a hometown crowd, octogenarian Studs Terkel was led to the stage to emcee the next portion of the show. Waxing passionate about his love of Chicago, despite all its “craziness and greed and corruption,” he positioned Goodman as part of the city’s rich history, celebrating the songs he left us while mourning the ones that would never be. Terkel warmly and sincerely eulogized Goodman to those in the audience who were too young to have had the chance to see him perform and appreciate all his talents. Labeling him a bard of the same caliber as Woody Guthrie, and later, Woody’s son, Terkel then called Arlo Guthrie to the stage.
Looking the quintessential hippie, with wavy gray hair streaming down his back and shoulders, Guthrie, as expected, performed Goodman’s most famous song, “City of New Orleans”, explaining how Goodman chased him down and bribed him with beer while he played the song for him all those years ago. Guthrie also took the opportunity to pay tribute to Jimmie Rodgers’ 100th birthday by performing “Waiting on a Train”. But no one could have predicted that he’d also perform “All Along The Watchtower” while accompanying himself on the ukulele and doing a dead-on impression of Dylan. It brought the house down.
Terkel returned to the stage to introduce Emmylou Harris, who looked positively radiant as she took the stage. One of music’s most gracious and elegant women, Harris also recounted her own favorite Goodman memory — the night that he played lead guitar in her Hot Band at a Utah concert when the regular player missed the flight — and, like the other artists, she shared what he meant to her as an artist and friend. After the opening bars of Goodman’s “Yellow Coat”, she was joined onstage by Mattea and DeMent, whose voices joined to provide truly lovely three-part harmonies. The three songstresses stayed onstage to offer an energetic and rollicking version of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” before Jackson Browne took the stage.
Browne’s performance was the most disappointing of the evening. His opening number, “Barricades Of Heaven”, was written as a tribute to fellow folk singers who bounced from club to club along the California shore, looking for places to perform. But tonight, the song became an interminably long dirge, devoid of energy in comparison to the performances of those who came before him. His updated (Browne dubbed it “the rehabbed version”) cover of the Rev. Gary Davis’ “Cocaine” featured some nice guitar work, but, as frequently occurs during Browne’s performances, blown lyrics marred the overall impact of the song. His cover of Goodman’s “Grand Canyon Song” fell victim to a false start; the second take was less than perfect as well, with Browne overly relying on a cheat sheet taped to his monitor. Even that couldn’t prevent sloppy guitar work and more missed lyrics.
The final performer was John Prine, one of Goodman’s closest friends. He’s older, grayer and heavier than he used to be, but the hometown crowd reclaimed him as a favorite son, saving the loudest applause of the night for his set. After an earlier viewing of a Goodman video clip explaining how he and Prine came to write the song “You Don’t Even Call Me By My Name”, Prine put his own spin on the story, singing the quasi-country song with an extra-special twinkle in his eye. For a moment, you could almost imagine the scene in New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel as the two young, hungry songwriters giggled their way through every trite human condition usually featured in the traditional country songs of the day. An especially poignant moment occurred as he was talking up his cover of Goodman’s “My Old Man”; Prine said he “always thought of the song…as being about Steve, ‘My Old Pal’.”
All the performers then returned to the stage, along with the Old Town School staff, for an all-star reprise of “City Of New Orleans” before calling it a night.
Walking out of Medinah Temple into the crisp, cold Chicago night, with a light dusting of snowflakes flying through the air, the snowfall seemed somewhat right; a reminder of sorts that life is a cycle of death and rebirth. We endure the dead of winter because it leads us to the life that comes in spring. This tribute served as a reminder that even though Goodman is gone, his songs will always endure, serving to inspire artists both young and old to find their own voice through their own song. That would have made Steve Goodman very happy.