Rarely — almost never — do I see a band appear nervous at the beginning of a performance. But that was the case with the South Memphis String Band last week at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. They appeared tentative and spoke very, very quietly before beginning their set. Now, it was a quiet room. And, if you’re going to play bluegrass or folk music, you might not find a more suitable place north of the Mason-Dixon Line than Old Town. So, it makes sense that they might feel some added pressure playing in front of such a discerning crowd.
Rightly so, it turns out. It was the crowd that was responsible for making this such a serious occasion — a feeling not normally associated with fine bluegrass music.
I’m conflicted on this show. The main draw here is Luther Dickinson, guitar player for The Black Crowes and front man for the North Mississippi All-Stars (he’s playing guitar and mandolin in the video below.) As a guitar fan, he’s one of those guys you go out of your way to see. So we did. I knew what I was getting into. People were there to hear the music — to study this performance even. But when I leaned close to my brother to ask a question about his soon-to-be one-year-old daughter … we got “shushed” by a woman next to us. That’s right — shushed at a show. Another time, a fan’s mobile phone rang. As he scrambled to dig it out of his pocket to silence it, icy stares bore into his skull and head shaking spread like a disapproving virus. Here’s the thing:
- It’s a bluegrass show. As in, the knee-slapping, beer-swilling, hootenanny style of music.
- They sell beer outside the theater. People drink beer, usually not in total silence.
- It’s a bluegrass show.
Look – I understand that, to many people in the crowd, this was a special occasion. Many of the songs played are taught at the school and practiced for hours on end by aspiring musicians across the city. I get it. But it’s a show, after all – it’s not a symphony. In part, I blame the band, too. They could have amped it up a bit. A little bit louder and whispered words might not have been an issue.
As for the music itself? Pretty great, actually. As an added bonus, we captured some excellent video before an Old Town employee politely asked us to shut down the camera. You can watch it below.
I want to be clear about one thing: Old Town School of Folk Music is a wonderful place and a pillar of the local music community. We love them. But music is made to be fun, a celebration. Can we lighten up a little, perhaps?