Long-time poster and GLONO friend, Helen Wilson, conjures up a little spring fever at Chicago’s beloved Old Town of Folk Music.
Rites of Spring
The power of music and the change of season breathes new life into the dead of winter.
I never thought I’d be rockin’ out to Sheryl Crow on a Saturday night, but there I was in a circle of complete strangers belting out “If it makes you happy” and playing a bongo drum. I was at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music All-Night Party.
We arrived around 7:30, in time to catch “Who wants to Be a Music Critic?” – a game show of sorts where local characters, including Pete Margasak and Tim Tuten of the Hideout, battled it out over music trivia, and name-that-tune to Robbie Fulks’ music samples. After laughing our asses off at these music critics stumbling over questions such as “What’s a funeral pyre?” or “Which of the following bands has Kelly Hogan NOT played in?” and me forming a crush on Pete Margasak, we headed upstairs to check out the rest of the party.
On the elevator, we were serenaded by live singers doing their version of cheesy elevator music. The all-night party was a sort of progressive where guests moved between small, often crowded rooms and participated in the singing and playing of music ranging from country/western, to bluegrass, to American roots, to pop. Our favorite room included a pile of percussion instruments in the center of the floor, where you could grab a shaker, a drum, or a pair of wooden sticks and join in. The themes in this room rotated every two hours, and included “Cat, Van, and Paul” (Stevens, Morrison, and Simon), “Carly and Carole” (Simon and King), and “Rockin’ Babes” featuring songs from Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Concrete Blonde, and the Pretenders among others. In other rooms, we sang along to the music of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Prince, Elvis and Madonna, Neil Young, and Abba. A room in the basement featured an all-night “Beatles Ensemble” where hits from the Fab Four were played from 6pm to 6am. We also joined a drum circle where I got lost in the rhythms until my hands were raw.
Throughout the hallways of the school, people hung out drinking beers from cans, or forming their own informal circles of guitars, banjos, whatever. Around 2am, we wandered into the main auditorium and found EE (Environmental Encroachment) on the stage. I’m not sure if this ensemble plays other venues or just came together for the night, but they were about 12 musicians dressed as bunny rabbits, Easter baskets, etc., emanating a hypnotic fusion of drums, horns, guitars.
A bunch of us got up and danced at the front of the stage – at this point I had beaten drums, sang “Joey” at the top of my lungs, and I was not above letting loose to this freakishly wonderful music. It was completely surreal – on stage one guy was playing the drums in a rabbit mask, and another guy in a tall pointy red velvet hat was simultaneously playing a trumpet and a trombone. And the rest of us were flailing our arms and swinging our hips to the sounds. This Alice in Wonderland-esque scene could have been a really good acid trip, yet I had hardly had two beers all night. It was at this moment I realized that I hadn’t felt this completely un-self-conscious in a long time.
I can’t sing, I’ve never played the drums, and I’m a mediocre dancer, but none of that mattered. I’m used to seeing live shows where I’m the spectator and someone else is performing, but Saturday I experienced music in a completely different way. No one was performing, and the songs didn’t belong to anyone in the room. The music was suddenly stripped of much of what I usually associate with it, and I was able to shed my usually critical perspective; Tori Amos and Tom Waits were all the same. It was about experiencing music rather than performing, listening to, or evaluating it. And the whole event was refreshingly unpretentious and un-“scene”-like. There were kids, old people, musicians and music appreciators of all levels, ages, demographics, shapes and sizes. It was a truly exhilarating and cathartic experience.
This season is about celebration and rejuvenation of life, about cleansing the soul, out with the old, on with the new. From the symbolism of a bunny rabbit bearing colored eggs and fuzzy new chicks, to the Christian mythology of Christ rising from the dead, to the Greek Dionysian rites of spring, this time is about shedding the baggage of the past year and purging the spirit in preparation for a new life cycle. The utterly raw experience of music, shared primarily with strangers, brought to awareness the vitality and spontaneity of life that is so often lost in the stresses of daily existence. Some people go to church on Easter Sunday, but this was exactly the kind of religious experience I needed.
– Helen W. Wilson