The Old Town School of Folk Music is a community staple and has been for over 55 years and counting. It’s an educational center, a performance space, and an all-around Chicago music fixture. It is also the city’s center for all things folk. It’s what the Green Mill is to jazz. It’s what Lounge Ax was and the Metro is to rock. It’s what the Empty Bottle and Schubas are to indie. It’s a sacred, special place to see a concert and it was especially so last Wednesday when Ani DiFranco took the stage for an intimate show, the proceeds of which benefited the school.
Given the history of the Old Town School, and given the history of folk, it’s no surprise that there’s an unspoken demand for respect during a live performance. The audiences at the Old Town School always seem to know this. They’re not there for the scene; they’re not there to socialize and throw back beers; they’re there—very clearly and whole-heartedly—for the music. So in other words, it’s basically the perfect location to see Ani DiFranco, who is arguably the modern queen of folk music and whose small stature nonetheless commands attention. She is a force. Everyone in the room knew even before the show started that something noteworthy was about to go down. And it did.
It all started with Jenny Scheinman. How the hell have I not heard of her before? Where have I been? Aside from being an accomplished solo musician, she’s also collaborated with the likes of Lou Reed, Aretha Franklin, and Nels Cline, to name a few. And while her musical range spans multiple genres, last Wednesday Scheinman was pure folk. “It wouldn’t be a folk show if you didn’t bring out a weird instrument and play a murder ballad,” she joked at one point while strapping her bouzouki on. During her 45-minute set, the audience learned that she was a genuine storyteller (“Thank you for listening to that little novel”) and a masterful violinist. For her final songs, Scheinman borrowed a couple of members of DiFranco’s band to help fill out her sound and by the time she left stage the crowd was audibly impressed.