Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Old Town School alumni and teachers folk out

Jeff Tweedy with Old Town School's Wilco cover band Photographs by Adam George

In from the brutish weather on Saturday night, a packed crowd at the Auditorium Theatre was treated to the deep, diverse pool of talent that is the Old Town School of Folk Music. The school celebrated its 50th anniversary by—how else?—filling the gorgeous theater with world-class song and dance.

Notable acts included the larger-than-life David Bromberg (back from a 17-year hiatus), former Old Town student Roger McGuinn (of the Byrds fame), the masterful banjo-picking of Bela Fleck, founder Frank Hamilton, who taught the first class in a friend’s living room, and a solo set by Jeff Tweedy. He was introduced here as “one of our Wiggleworm’s fathers,” referring to a popular children’s dance class held at the school. Tweedy invited the Old Town Wilco Ensemble, a Wilco cover band, up to play with him, and he thanked the school for teaching his kid how to breakdance. “That’ll come in handy,” he said.

The night took on a Prairie Home Companion-like format, with local radio personalities talking up the crowd, a jug band performing in the balconies (diverting the audience from stage set-up), Old Town dance teachers doing some dazzling numbers between sets, and even some singing instructors caroling in the message that it was time for intermission.

Incidentally, the show was also a fundraiser for the school. After a single plea from the director, the crowd turned over $67,000. Old Town currently has around 6,000 students and 650 classes held each week, with everything from “barroom” dancing to advanced mandolin. Past teachers include Muddy Waters, Wynton Marsalis and Steve Earle, while John Prine and Steve Goodman are said to have learned guitar at the school. (Prine’s lessons were put on hold when he was drafted.)

True to the Old Town name, the music didn’t stray too far from the enduring formulas of folk and blues, but there were some eclectic variations—a Mexican folk group inspired by European baroque, say, or a band of two banjos that occasionally sings in Chinese. The latter belongs to Bela Fleck and his partner Abigail Washburn, both from Nashville. Washburn thanked Old Town for “appreciating things that are slightly weird” and lamented that her town didn’t have anything like it. From a musician out of Nashville, that’s saying quite a bit. - Fred Koschmann

Old Town School founder Frank Hamilton performs

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn