Before Joni Mitchell appeared, executive director Jim Hirsch bounded onto the stage to thank the benefactors and supporters who helped him raise more than $7 million for the Old Town School of Folk Music's new home. Looking into the semi-circle of seats (425 of them, most filled by people holding a $2,500 ticket), Hirsch casually delivered his opinion of the school's new performance space: "I believe this is the best concert venue in Chicago right now."
He may be right. Warm and intimate, the room fosters the sense that performers inhabit the same space as the audience. Barely a dozen paces separate the stage from the back wall, and even the people in the compact balcony seem connected to the action.
Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, who warmed up the audience with a comic rendition of Puff the Magic Dragon (featuring "Little Jimmy Hirsch" as Puff's friend), pronounced the sound system "extraordinary."
And Joni Mitchell lent credence to that opinion when she stepped out, strapped on an electric guitar and started singing. Standing alone on the stage, Mitchell's voice came through the sound system as clearly and forcefully as her best recordings. Even her guitar, which she tunes in such complex and eccentric ways, delivered chords that sounded uniformly distinct and precise.
The Canadian-born singer played with intense concentration for an hour, mixing old hits (they paved paradise, put up a parking lot) with story-songs from her new album, TAMING THE TIGER, to be released later this month.
She also paused to deliver anecdotes as surprising and offbeat as her song lyrics. "When I turned 50, I fell in love with a home boy," began one. "He's kind of sexy," her mother volunteered, to her daughter's amazement. "Well, I'll pay to see your idea of sexy," Mitchell responded, agreeing to meet him. Thus began the sorry love affair she turned into the next song.
The audience, consisting primarily of well-tailored suits with an occasional beret and Hawaiian shirt mixed in, was oddly subdued. Their applause couldn't even pull Mitchell back out for an encore. But they applauded warmly and vigorously for Hirsch when he came out to play his guitar with Yarrow, and again after Mitchell's set when Hirsch appeared on stage again, this time holding a gigantic bouquet of roses.
They also cheered restaurateur Joe Carlucci, who donated the lavish banquet they had just enjoyed, and the Sara Lee Corporation, which not only provided dessert, but promised to sponsor the Old Town School's first season of concerts.
The grand opening festivities continue today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Old Town School, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Bonnie Koloc, Fred and Ed Holstein, Fred Hamilton and other Old Town School veterans will assemble for a reunion concert at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16-$20. Call (773) 728-6000.
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