John McCutcheon-Tracy Grammer, Old Town School of Folk   Leave a comment


John McCutcheon & Tracy Grammer  Old Town School of Folk, Chicago- March 25, 2011

The Fates coordinated things quite nicely.

While the result of the Blackhawks-Ducks game was not what I wanted (the Hawks lost), the game itself was quite good. Combine that with an unexpected whirlwind tour of the amazing Art Institute of Chicago, things worked out quite well for a weekend in Chicago that could not have been anticipated a couple months beforehand.

Once in Chicago, the weekend started with a great meal of gumbo and fried catfish at the Exchequer, and that first evening was capped off with an incredible evening of folk music at the legendary venue, the Old Town School of Folk. Seldom does a night of music shift the way you view the music world, but the two-hour set by John McCutcheon definitely did that for me.

I purchased three seats for this concert as soon as our tickets for the Blackhawks game and flights were secured. I was very familiar with Grammer, having caught Dave Carter and her at the Edmonton Folk Fest some years ago, and having purchased her music since. She was the reason I settled on this concert; taking two non-folkies to the show was a bit of a risk, but the opportunity to attend a show at the OTSF was not likely to be repeated, and since I already enjoyed Grammer’s music, I figured to take the chance that my traveling companions would indulge me. McCutcheon was less familiar to me, although I had listened to and enjoyed the Rounder Records compilation Supper’s on the Table…Everybody Come In. By no means was I A Fan in the way that I am of Guy Clark, Doc Watson, Dale Ann Bradley, or even Tracy Grammer.

That changed by the end of the evening.

To misuse McCutcheon’s words, folk singers can be well-intended guides for guilt trips. What I experienced with McCutcheon- through his music and with his words- is that a visionary folk singer reveals that amidst heaviness of thought exists the lightness of revelation. Think about that for a second, if you would. Instead of feeling bad for what is going on in north Africa, in Japan, in Wisconsin- for feeling remorse that you aren’t doing something, anything, of significance to mitigate the situation- how about understanding that by being made aware of the harshness of life elsewhere, one can feel empowered to make changes in one’s own life situation to minimize the negativity experienced by others.

Or not.

Back to the concert…

If, like me, you’ve only heard of the Old Town School of Folk through the occasional article or Bloodshot Records compilation, you need to make a pilgrimage to Chicago to experience the room. It is small- smaller than one might imagine even after looking at the on-line line drawing used to select your tickets. No more than six rows of pews augmented by several round tables and a tiny balcony, every seat places one within a few metres of the performer. The lobby is crowded and the refreshment stand is quaint. Fair warning…Edmund Fitzgerald porter sounds much better than it tastes. The posters and decorations of the lobby are of interest to folks like me, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t purchase an Old Town t-shirt or other merchandise at the show; I’m sure they know what they’re doing, but to me such appears short-sighted.

Okay…to the concert.

Tracy Grammer. You have to love her. As she hints throughout her songs and stories, Tracy Grammer has continued performing as much to keep the memory of Dave Carter alive as she does to promote her standing in the folk world. This is apparent in her choice of material- Carter songs such as “Crocodile Man” and “The Mountain”, and a revealing interpretation of Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” which opened the half-hour, five-song set. “Across the Great Divide” especially worked on a couple levels, reaching out to the memory of Dave Carter, but also to those who have memory of him. It was genuinely affecting.

As impactful as that performance was, Grammer saved her best for a more recent song drawn from her very fine e.p. Book of Sparrows. On disc, Kate Power’s “Travis John” is an appropriately moving tribute to those who have fallen in recent overseas conflicts. Performed live- and accompanied by the story Grammer shares during her introduction- the song assumes additional dimension. Singing the simple words “I am a boy, full of promise, full of freedom,” Grammer stakes a position- in her small way- as an advocate for liberty and truth, as well as for the sacrifices that accompany such ideals.

Yes, she tends to ramble a bit between songs, and I could have done without the Marcia, Marcia, Marcia story (that led into “Crocodile Man”) in place of a few more songs, but Grammer is so personable, so honest, that while five-songs might not have been nearly enough, one still felt satisfied.

Grammer’s voice may not be the fullest on the folk circuit, and it may not be note-perfect. But for a little while in Chicago, it felt like it was.

Performing for an audience that included five non-retirees (McCutcheon’s slight exaggeration), the well-regarded folk singer opened the set with “Reuben’s Train” leading into the first sing-a-long of the evening, “Well May the World Go.” And this was the first indication that I wasn’t in Red Deer.

At home- and in my experience- one doesn’t normally break into full-voiced accompaniment with the performing singer. In fact, in a different location, doing so one would risk getting the old stink-eye from yours truly. In Chicago and at the School of Folk, it’s what people do. And it sounds pretty good and one becomes quite willing to raise one’s own voice- as off-key and wonky as it is- within this inclusive community atmosphere. Weird.

This was a magical night. Not only did my two traveling companions claim they enjoyed the performance, I believe they really did. McCutcheon performed on any number of instruments, and I perhaps missed one: guitar, banjo, piano, autoharp, hammered dulcimer, and finally- as things came to a close- fiddle. Amongst the songs he performed were stories of tubed meats, Crispy Crème donuts, July 3rd celebrations, Woody Guthrie, flare-lit soccer games, family, and life in the days before Ritalin.

If one thought Grammer rambled on, one hadn’t heard anything yet!

As McCutcheon admitted late in this memorable set, the evening found him with friends and mentors weighing heavily on his mind. And while the evening was certainly inspired by Pete and Woody, less familiar names and stories were given equal measure. West Virginia’s Frank Buckles, “Immigrants,” union coalmen red necks, kindergarten chants, and Si Kahn were all given their due in song, all given respect through McCutcheon’s measured manner.

In a most moving fashion, McCutcheon performed Kahn’s “Washington Square,” commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.

While McCutcheon played and sang “Pastures of Plenty,” I was startled to realize that I don’t recall ever before seeing someone play the hammered dulcimer in person. The man is truly an embarrassment of talents- a voice for the ages, a multi-instrumentalist, and a compelling storyteller.

“How Can I Keep From Singing” closed a poignant and lively evening of song and story, and gave McCutcheon the opportunity to feature yet another instrument, the Tibetan Singing Bowl.

What a night of folk music! The experience of listening to folk music- real folk music: the songs of Pete and Woody, songs that evoked the spirits of Kate Wolf and Dave Carter, songs written by those who have lived and observed, songs that provide hope, perspective, and history, and songs sung by people gathered in a similar spirit- was truly astounding. The legacy of the ‘Sixties was alive and well on this recent cold night in Chicago- it was something I won’t soon forget.

I learned. I laughed. I cried. I sang. I thought. One should do those things more often.

Not even a self-aggrandizing, singing cab driver could spoil the natural high of the evening.

A couple things came off the Bucket List (I don’t really have a B.L., but the weekend was full of experiences I’m so fortunate to have experienced) that weekend- Walking under the elevated tracks of Chicago while a train passes overhead. Seeing a show at the Old Town School of Folk. The Willis (Sears) Tower.   Experiencing a Blackhawks game in Chicago, and seeing Fernando Pisani play (even a little bit).

What wasn’t on the list was becoming A Fan of John McCutcheon. Check.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

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