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Chuck Mitchell returns to play cozy grounds Print-ready version

by Susan Whitall
Detroit News
April 15, 2010

Folk guitarist honed skills during '60s in area coffee houses

It's been a long time since the folk music explosion of the '50s and '60s, when Metro Detroit was chockablock with coffee houses and the sounds of acoustic guitars coming from every other church.

Chuck Mitchell was a part of that scene with then-wife Joni Mitchell, living in a Wayne State-area apartment and playing folk clubs like the Chess Mate in Detroit and the Raven Gallery in Birmingham, then Southfield.

Mitchell now lives in Iowa with his third wife in a 19th-century house on the Mississippi River. He plays a rare Michigan show this Friday at the Green Wood Coffee House in Ann Arbor.

The native New Yorker grew up in Rochester, on Tienken Road (where he married Joni in 1965, on his parents' front lawn), and didn't take up the guitar until he was 22. Playing the circuit in the '60s, he caught up pretty fast.

"There was a lot more expected of us," Mitchell says. "One of the things I try to do is lay out a pretty decent riff on guitar. We used to be able to accompany ourselves more fully, as opposed to what I call the Ani diFranco slap."

Not that he doesn't hear a lot of good young guitarists.

"John Mayer, of course, and Brad Paisley is such a fine, fine guitarist."

In recent interviews, ex-wife Joni Mitchell has criticized today's music sharply.

"She had a killer ear," Mitchell says.

Joni is one of three very successful, driven people whom Mitchell observed closely. She had extreme focus. "Joni would not let something go. When she made a pantsuit out of an old vanilla-colored navy blanket -- it was wonderful, it had style, she wore it with a dark burgundy beret -- she did nothing but sew that for a week. When she wrote a song, that's what she did for two or three days. I'd do something and put it aside, and take it up six years later. 'Oh, this is a nice song, I should finish it!' "

His other two icons of success: Gabe Kaplan, whom Mitchell knew early on as a hard-working stand-up comedian, and singer Gordon Lightfoot.

"Gordon was from a working-class, rough little Ontario town, and he didn't ever want to go back. I had a wonderful time growing up, I was tight with my parents. I wasn't running from anything."

A lot of Mitchell's show will be familiar to his old friends; he does several of his own compositions, Michael Smith's song "The Dutchman," Cheryl Wheeler's "His Hometown," and his ex-wife's "Circle Game," which he pairs with a Carl Sandburg poem, cabaret songs by Brecht & Weill and Flanders & Swann, and songs by Billy Joe Shaver and Guy Clark.

According to Detroit acoustic musician John D. Lamb, small coffeehouses like the Green Wood are the most vibrant parts of the acoustic scene today.

"Rather than looking for big popular rooms, performers are playing on the house concert scene, whether a church or a residence, someone decides they want to present artists in their own back yard."

Mitchell remembers well the days of the church coffeehouses. The creativity in the air was potent, but scenemakers like Herb Cohen, who ran the Raven, were the sparkplugs who kept everything going.

"When the Raven had that short life in a sanctuary, in a church, these are the kinds of places you can almost feel an evanescence," Mitchell recalls. "They're not real, they're ether, and you sing and ... down the tubes you go. But you have to have someone like a Herb Cohen, somebody at the door every night collecting money."

Additional Facts
Chuck Mitchell
8 p.m. Friday (doors open 7:30)
First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor's Green Wood Coffee House
1001 Green Road, Ann Arbor
Tickets: $12 at the door
Call (734) 665-8558 to reserve a space.

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