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Concert Wed Jun 16 2010

Review: Songwriter Showcase @ Phyllis' Musical Inn

[This piece was submitted by reader Rob Reid.]

Though Phyllis' Musical Inn is the oldest music venue in Wicker Park dating back to its incarnation as Phyllis Jaskot's polka venue in 1950s, the quality of music varies wildly from night to night. However, due to proprietor Clem Jaskot's hands-off supportiveness of local music, it's a place where some more established acts return time and again, precisely for the low-key vibe that appeals to do-it-yourselfers seeking their very first gig.

For the last few years, Phyllis' has been the venue of choice for Chris Darby's bimonthly songwriter showcase, which began in his Logan Square apartment in 2004. Over the years the quality of these showcases has steadily improved, and the June 9th bill looked particularly promising — featuring four Chicagoans who recently made appearances at Schubas, alongside two veteran troubadours from out of state. It so happened that June 9th was also the most exciting night in Chicago ice hockey in nearly 50 years. Jaskot, smiling broadly, yelled, "Hey look up in the sky!" before disappearing through an unknown exit in the patio, just as fireworks shot up into the sky from all directions.

Inside, while Blackhawks revelers continued celebrating over a few more drinks, Patrick McGuan warmed up the songwriter night on banjo. Banjo turned out to be a particularly good choice for the moment; the instrument's natural volume and timbre once made it the instrument of choice in rowdy bars in the days before electricity boosted the guitar's prominence. As McGuan cranked through a series of old time standards better known in the years following the Hawks' previous championship in 1961 ("Colorado Girl," "Ballad of Hollis Brown," "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor"), a growing group of folk music supporters constructed a human wall between the straggling Hawks revelers and the stage. McGuan, whose music recalled a bygone era, attributed the death of his computer to an increasing affinity for the simplicity of times past ("When you don't have internet, the whole world opens up to you").

If McGuan is from the past, McKenzie Toma seemed to be both from the past and from a faraway land. If you took away her hauntingly sweet vibrato, and then took away her uncanny talent for painting naturalistic moods with fingerstyle guitar, she'd still be a poet. Blazing a unique trail but likely endearing to followers of Jolie Holland and Joanna Newsom, her naturalist imagery shifted from a lupine opener ("awooo, ah awooo") to dancing in a patch of snow with her favorite animal in "Nimble Jawed." On the sensual "Lapsang" she assumed the point of view of a Chinese tea ("As I wilt in flames of blue/as the thunder rumbles through/fire burns my body new/what once was, is ash and soot"), before her set galloped to a close with the percussive "I Am Full."

The wall of folk appreciators thickened during Toma's set, but as soon as the heightening revelry on Division Street vacuumed away the last Blackhawks fans, the audience sank into Indian style seating arrangement — an option that just wasn't possible a few months ago on Phyllis' hopelessly grimy floor — now slickly resurfaced with hardwood. The relaxed atmosphere was well suited for the homecoming of Ben Summers, whose low-key set closed out with "The Last of My Concerns," a pensive tune describing his last days in Chicago: ("Brushing off the rain drops/and walking from the pink line to you/You bring me out and lay me down/You drop the needle on the working man's blues"). Summers, who left Chicago in 2009, has already found some success in the smaller pond of Kansas City, where he works with three new bands.

Andru Bemis, on the other hand, lives just as much on the road as in southwest Michigan, where he coordinates the music at Foundry Hall in South Haven. Sometimes you can just tell by looking at someone that they're full of stories- and you could tell from Bemis' old suit and derby hat that he had at least a story or two. In fact, he has biked, hitchhiked, and ridden Amtrak trains across the country for many years to share his colorful and old timey songs. During the tense final moments of the Blackhawks playoff victory, he sat alone on stage reading an Elizabeth Brautigan novel, but early in his set he explained his stance on the game in a way that exemplified his colorful and gentle personality: "I hate rooting for the Blackhawks because I feel like I'm being mean to Philadelphia. I hate rooting for Philadelphia because I feel like I'm being mean to the Blackhawks. I'm not rooting for anyone, let's just say the best team won." One of the highlights of Bemis' set was "Huck Finn," a tune recounting Bemis' lifelong admiration of Mark Twain's creation ("I used to smoke a corncob pipe/I would smoke it late at night/I never got in trouble cause I turned out the light/just like Huck Finn").

Following Bemis was Heather Styka, the curator for the monthly New York Songwriter Circle at Schubas. The prolific Styka rewarded her fans by playing mostly unreleased songs postdating her 2009 album, Travel and Teacups. She was very much in the moment with her performance; at around 1 a.m. she dedicated the song "Clementine" to fans who stayed out so late ("He's occupied my thoughts/on and off for over a year now/He doesn't pay any rent/and I don't pay any mind"). Amongst her newer songs was a week-old tune recounting a girl walking on a tightrope between two trees ("Everyone will think I'm walking with such grace and ease/If they walked behind me they'd see the wobble in my knees").

Closing out the night was Ty Maxon, a hypnotic fingerstyle specialist who began with "Ghost of Me," an appropriately haunting tune with shifting rhythmic patterns. Later he introduced a few newer songs (including "To Theoda" and "Calling of the Crows") from an album in progress. Though Maxon has cited John Fahey and Elliot Smith as influences, his guitar work rightfully earns him his own place as a virtuoso, while his angelic voice fills out solo arrangements which recall Simon & Garfunkel around the time of Bookends. Aside from playing his own set, Maxon joined Patrick McGuan for a song earlier in the night, and along with Heather Styka (melodica) joined Chris Darby to close the night with Darby's newest song.

Although Darby is leaving Chicago in mid-July for a ten month tour across the country, there'll be an encore for his songwriter series: a three day Songwriter Festival at Phyllis' Musical Inn, which takes place on July 7, 9, and 10.

-Rob Reid

 
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