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Joni Mitchell Performs At Famed Folk-Music School Reopening   Print

by Matt Carmichael
VH1 Website
September 24, 1998

Other big-time folkies such as Peter Yarrow, Steve Earle and Gillian Welch also play gala event


CHICAGO -- Legendary singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell displayed her classic folk-style Friday at the gala opening of the new home of the Old Town School of Folk Music, a facility that over four decades has been a breeding ground for such illustrious folk-rockers as Roger McGuinn and John Prine.

Mitchell's legendary voice wafted through the hall, creating the sense of warmth and musical intimacy that has helped define the genre through the years. As she sang, she accompanied her always poetic words with her trademark guitar-phrases and a subtle sway of her hips.

Joining Mitchell for the musical portion of the event were Peter Yarrow of '60s folk-trio Peter, Paul and Mary, roots-rocker Steve Earle and traditionalist folk-singer Gillian Welch.

"It's remarkable," Yarrow told the well-heeled crowd, "that people as substantial as yourselves can still get down. If this had been 30 years ago, the CIA would have been watching."

Also on hand were Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and 425 benefactors who had paid $5,000 each to be there for the opening-night festivities. The performance was the culmination of a fund-raising and red-tape-slicing campaign by the school that took a dozen years and raised more than $9 million toward the remodeling of a regional library on North Lincoln Avenue. Previously, the school was located on West Armitage Avenue.

"How great it is to be away from Washington," Durbin said, referring to the current political turmoil involving President Clinton's sex scandal.

From the start of her performance, Mitchell captivated the audience. She sang songs such as Crazy Cries Of Love and Facelift, from her upcoming album, TAMING THE TIGER, which is due Tuesday. And she regaled everyone with wry stories and anecdotes about her music.

She led off with a series of newer songs, including Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Sex Kills, and Turbulent Indigo, filling the acoustically dazzling performance-space with complex pickings from her deeply resonating electric guitar. And through it all, her vocals reigned supreme. Her voice has aged like a black-and-white photograph -- the grainier it becomes, the more it endows her words with a somber authority.

Mitchell's performance was, in its singular way, the perfect tribute to the Old Town School of Music. Since it was founded in 1957, the school has trained such subsequently illustrious musicians as Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, John Prine, Bob Gibson and the late Steve Goodman. It currently provides classes for up to 3,000 students each week.

In many ways, the night also belonged to Yarrow. Over the years, he has done numerous benefits for the school and worked behind the scenes and out of the spotlight, raising funds to make the new space a reality.

Drawing on his connections to the community, Yarrow began by taking the Peter, Paul and Mary classic Puff the Magic Dragon (RealAudio excerpt) and peppering it with the names of the donors and board members, along with little references to their decade-long struggle to raise funds for the new facility. He even brought out the school's executive director, Jim Hirsch, on guitar and one of the school's founders, Frank Hamilton, as a backing vocalist.

But not everyone was thrilled about the nature of the event, with its high-priced tickets and white-collar guest list.

While Mitchell was singing the strident Turbulent Indigo, concert-goer David Stowell said, "She's singing about [this] audience -- all the corporate-types despoiling the Earth for profit." Stowell said he had gotten his ticket from a friend.

But such negative thoughts were few and far between. While some were there to see Mitchell, others had come to show their support for the school itself.

Katy Burno, daughter of one of the school's donors and a guitar student at the school, said, "It's more that the Old Town School has a new home. It's a beautiful place for musicians."

 

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