After all of the weekend's speeches and toasts, a simple gesture by Jim Hirsch, the executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music, set matters straight. As the 41-year-old institution opened the doors to the 43,000-square-foot, $9 million Chicago Folk Center at the beautifully restored former Hild Library on Lincoln Avenue, politicians, corporate executives and fund-raising luminaries toasted the new digs and one another. Then Hirsch, the evening's emcee, put an end to all the self-congratulatory patter, picked up an acoustic guitar and whipped off a valiant little solo during an inaugural set by folk legend Peter Yarrow.
The Folk Center is, after all, just a building -- albeit an impressive one, with a 425-capacity theater that sounded like a dream come true for Chicago concertgoers accustomed to acoustically imperfect rooms. But no matter how impressive the sound system, it is meaningless without meaningful music. That's where Yarrow, Joni Mitchell, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and, yes, even Hirsch the guitar player came in. If rock is all about gesture and attitude, folk (and its spiritual cousins blues and country) is obsessed with content. That's why Earle could command the stage Saturday with an acoustic guitar that he played with all the dexterity of a pot scrubber, looking for all the world like a man who had spent the afternoon moving furniture. And it's why Mitchell could hold court Friday with her electric guitar and its digital treasure chest of oddball tunings, doing little more than regally sashaying in place. In lieu of showmanship, they brought stories that clamored for attention, poetry that demanded to be sung.
Of all the performances, Mitchell's was the most anticipated, if only because she so seldom tours. Friday's show was her first in Chicago in 15 years. Those expecting a flashback to Mitchell and her BLUE period of confessional folk tunes probably left disappointed, but the 54-year-old singer put on a ravishing performance of her latter-day, jazz-tinged material. To the uninitiated, it was particularly jarring to hear Mitchell follow Yarrow, whose wry renditions of his Peter, Paul & Mary hits evoked a simpler era when social consciousness went hand in hand with a hearty singalong. The grandfatherly Yarrow was wonderful, particularly as he ad-libbed his Puff, The Magic Dragon into a talking blues about Old Town's budgetary travails.
In contrast, Mitchell offered a more tangled perspective of the world, as she sang elliptical melodies and pulled abstract clusters of notes from her guitar. Her vocal inflections were from the jazz world, though her songs were so dense and wordy that they limited her ability to experiment with phrasing. With her wide mouth, blond shoulder-length hair and willowy physique, Mitchell was a luminous if somewhat distant performer.
Her songs demanded that listeners meet her halfway, or else fidget in vain while awaiting Woodstock or The Circle Game. She offered only one early hit, Yellow Taxi, which she sang with loose-limbed aplomb, then turned into a goof with a dead-on Bob Dylan impression. Otherwise, she traced her growth with highly personal selections, beginning with a series of scathing social commentaries (Sex Kills), followed by a handful of troubled love songs (Sunny Sunday) and finishing, like the traveler between worlds that she is, with two scenes from the road: Just Like This Train and Black Crow.
On Saturday, Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings came across like an Appalachian sibling act with their prim outfits and softspoken twanginess. Rawlings was a masterly guitarist with bluegrass lightning in his fingers, Welch a tersely literate storyteller. But Welch's unflinching tales of addiction (My Morphin) and murder (Caleb Meyer) suggested a sensibility nurtured by the Rolling Stones, circa STICKY FINGERS, as much as the Stanley Brothers.
Then came Earle, an eleventh-hour replacement for British folk-rocker Richard Thompson, who had to cancel to attend his father-in-law's funeral. The Texan paid homage to mentors such as folk artist Townes Van Zandt and acoustic blues masters Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins. He also extended their legacy in originals such as Ellis Unit One, about a prisoner on Death Row, and South Nashville Blues, about the temptation that put him there. More than any other performer, Earle embodied the spirit behind the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.