Folk & Roots Festival: Anything Goes

Colleen Miller says that when she started programming concerts for the Old Town School of Folk Music, in late 1995, the only instruction former executive director Jim Hirsch gave her was “keep it interesting.” The self-proclaimed “housewife from Glenview” doesn’t consider herself an envelope pusher, but since the Old Town School moved into its swankier Lincoln Square digs a couple years ago, she’s been stretching the definition of “folk music” on a semiregular basis, bringing in popular indie-rock acts like Smog and Magnetic Fields–whose Stephin Merritt writes more like Cole Porter than Porter Wagoner. And next weekend, at the third annual Chicago Folk & Roots Festival in Welles Park, she’s doing it again: Saturday’s program climaxes with a performance by punk-rock matriarch Patti Smith.

On the surface it might seem like these choices are about money. In its first year, the Folk & Roots Festival was headlined by alt-country favorite Robbie Fulks and bluegrass hero Del McCoury; 9,000 people came. The next year it was twangy rocker Steve Earle and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett; attendance more than doubled. When I first wrote about the school’s move, in the summer of 1998, Hirsch told me, “Could you ever see a Miller beer sign here? Sure–why not, if it was done properly and supported a program that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to present?” And in May, after American Airlines contributed money and travel, the school started putting the logo on its tickets.

But Miller says she’s feeling no more pressure than before to fill the coffers. “I want to please a lot of people,” she says. “I want the Old Town School people to be pleased, I want the sponsors to be pleased, I want the artists to be pleased, and I want myself to be pleased. It’s like plugging in a lot of different pieces into a puzzle and seeing what you come up with.”

She also notes that the scope of the event varies from year to year based on who’s touring and who the school can afford. Sunday night’s program this year features Cajun rockers the Bluerunners, merengue traditionalist Joaquin Diaz, and legendary Zimbabwean singer Thomas Mapfumo, and the Sunday-afternoon dance workshop features live music by the kitschy North Carolina salsa group Bio Ritmo and hard-core honky-tonker Dale Watson.

“I don’t want anyone to look at one year’s lineup as ‘the lineup,'” says Miller. “I’d rather people look at it over a ten-year period to get a sense of the breadth. Last year was heavy on Americana, this year is big on rock and African music, and next year could be super-duper Latin and ultra-folky, I don’t know….You know how I shop for furniture? If it goes, then I do it. I can’t explain how I book the music better than that.”

The Folk & Roots Festival runs July 15 and 16 from noon to 10 PM in Welles Park, at Lincoln and Montrose. A donation of $5 for adults and $1 for children and seniors is suggested. For more information call 773-728-6000 or consult the “Fairs & Festivals” listings in this section.

Pap Star

In the original Veruca Salt, Nina Gordon delivered the pop hooks and Louise Post injected them with hard-rock menace; on singles like “Seether” and “Volcano Girls,” this compromise could be nearly irresistible. But so far neither woman has come close to recapturing that magic on her own.

Post’s dismal attempt came out in May, and last week Warner Brothers released Gordon’s solo debut, Tonight and the Rest of My Life. Produced by Bob Rock over seven months in Hawaii, the record has been ready to go for a year, but Outpost, the Geffen imprint it was originally made for, didn’t survive the Universal-Polygram merger.

Gordon has told interviewers how stress free the recording process was without band dynamics to deal with, but the album could have used some of the old tension between her pop sensibilities and Post’s six-string bluster. On a handful of tracks–the lightly chugging “Badway,” the handclap-enhanced “Number One Camera”–her catchy melodies and unabashed pop choruses are almost enough, but much of the album is just slick and wimpy, sort of like Susanna Hoffs’s first solo album.

Rock’s production has no teeth: the guitars sound airbrushed, with any hint of attack smoothed out by keyboard textures, and the piano-driven title ballad could easily be covered by Celine Dion. The lyrics, too, lack the bite and bile that gave “Seether” its edge. The lead track, “Now I Can Die,” is utterly banal, despite a reference to cross-dressing: “He takes me everywhere / He goes and he goes everywhere / He likes to try on all my clothes / But not my underwear”), and in “New Year’s Eve” the narrator laments that she’s not “French-twisting [her] hair and selecting the right earrings to wear” for the big party because her man’s not around. A couple songs might be about the split with Post, but it’s hard to tell under the pileup of smooth cliches.

The packaging for Tonight and the Rest of My Life features Gordon, who once upon a time wore a footballer’s greasepaint under her eyes, in a variety of cheesecake poses–including one that shows more nipple than the cover of Exile in Guyville. This sort of sales approach, which works for Madonna and even Britney Spears, doesn’t seem to come naturally to Gordon, who looks awkward and a little embarrassed. Dunno why–nothing here we haven’t seen, or heard, before.


Enrique Bunbury, the former lead singer for the popular Spanish rock group Heroes del Silencio, performs Tuesday night as part of a Spanish rock showcase at Joe’s. Bunbury’s recent solo album, Pequeño (EMI Latin), is a sophisticated mix of dark pop hooks, cabaret-flavored drama, and well-deployed North African and flamenco accents. Also on the bill are Bunbury’s countryman Juan Perro and Si*Se, a bilingual New York electronica outfit recently signed by Luaka Bop.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Sebring.