Monday, June 25, 2012

Celebrating The Earl—A Woodstock for the Chicago Folk Scene

Saul Broudy, Jim Post, Brian Bowers, John Prine, Dean Milano, Bonnie Kolack and Johnny Burns joined all of he musicians at the Earl of Old Town tribute to join Fred Holdstein's recorded voice on All the Good People.  Photo by Jim Polaski.

Folks in these parts will be talking about the birthday tribute to Earl Pionke and the Earl of Old Town at Fitzgerald’s  in Berwyn last night for years to come.  It was one of those rare events that actually exceeded the high expectations raised by glowing press tributes to the  Earl in all of the Chicago media over the last week or so.

For those of you not from the Windy City or who are too young to remember that once, long, long ago there was something called folk music, the Earl of Old Town was a legendary music club on Wells Street, owned and operated by the even more legendary Pionke, who’s 80th birthday was celebrated by a remarkable reunion of the surviving stars of a stellar age.  Many traveled half-way across the country or further just to do one number.  And they all had fabulous tales to tell about Earl, his memorable staff, and each other.  

There was much laughter, and some hanky moments as Earl figures like Gus Johns, Jimmie Johnson, and Antoine, the diminutive  German cook were recalled.  And of course there was plenty of tribute paid to the late Steve Goodman (represented by his tiny 85-year-old mother Minnitte), Tom Dundee, Judy Clemens, Mike Jordon, Fred Holstein, Bob Gibson, Utah Philips and others who have flagged the Midnight Special to parts unknown.

The whole project was a labor of  by Marina Jason, Earl’s close friend and a significant figure in Chicago folk history herself as the manager and publicity agent for many of the artists.  She called in a lot of chips and worked magic.

My wife Kathy drove us all the way from Crystal Lake, a place on the edge of the known universe for old Chicagoans.  We arrived with minutes to spare and found a long line waiting for admission.  I surveyed the crowd.  “So this is what we look like 40 years later!”  It would not be the last time I had that thought.  We were once so young.  Now there was a sea of gray hair, a lot of gleaming bald heads, paunches, canes, and some remarkably ugly clothing options.  The women seemed to have fared much better than us geezers.  Many were still slender.  They were unafraid of the aid of hair dye, and they could dress themselves without embarrassment.

We made our way through the big tent where the large over-flow crowd could watch the proceedings on big TV screens into the club.  It was already jammed.  We made our way through the crowd trying to find seats.  Earl was seated at the head of a table front and center, surrounded by friends, admirers and the morbidly curious.  I never got a chance to get close.  Hey Earl, if by some miracle you are reading this, thanks for never throwing me out of your joints and for several treasured hours of conversation, bullshit, and hard drinking with Fred Holstein over at your other club, Somebody Else’s Troubles.  I was that damn Wobbly in the cowboy hat.

Anyway, Kathy and I finally found seats of tiny plastic chairs lined up in three rows at the rear of the room.  Hint to Fitzgerald’s—I know that this allowed more folks to be admitted to the inner sanctum, but I was frankly amazed these didn’t actually collapse under the weight of some of us, i.e. me.  

I surveyed the room and saw many faces I thought I recognized.  Some I could put name on.  Most I could not.  As it was, it was a miracle so many of us recognized each other at all.  It was like going to your high school reunion without the benefit of name tags in 48 .pt type.

We were just settling in when Johnny Burns, who shared emcee chores with Harry Waller and Ed Holstein in the second half, called us to order.  Three quarters of the Casualares, a stylish group in snappy tuxedos, opened with a set of their specialty—American standards.  My Facebook friend Dean Milano, who may have belonged to more bands performing in more styles than any other living musician, played the electric bass and sang harmony on numbers like Somewhere Over the Rainbow—performed with the almost never heard verse.  Dean was back sans-tux later in the show to slap the bull fiddle.

After that, it was off to the races.  In the first half performers generally only got to do a number or two.  I can’t single them all out here.  But it was great to see an old Fellow Worker, mouth harp whiz, Saul Broudy, who came all the way from Philadelphia and who remembered Utah Phillips.  The two of them jungled up at the IWW Hall on Lincoln Ave. while I was General Secretary Treasurer of the union when they first played the Earl.

Among others during the first half it was great to hear the very funny Larry Rand, Mick Scott, Andrew Calhoun, and Mike Dunbar.

Jim Post, looking more like Mark Twain every day, except with an even more impish gleam in the eye, closed the first half by taunting Earl for being a liar.  “You kept telling me you were older than me.  Now you have and 80th birthday and I am only 72 Liar!”  It was just one of many comments and jibes to the Earl, who generally responded by raising both arms in jubilantly in the air with fists clenched, by performers.  Jim, a consummate story teller, recalled his beginnings at the Earl, which really launched his career.  And as always, he sang an immaculate set.  Jim spent the second half of the concert in the row of seat behind us heckling the Earl and other performers in a time honored tradition.  

We were able to mingle some during the break, and Kathy bought us beef sandwiches from the outdoor grill on the patio between the tent and club.  Got a chance to see and talk to some familiar faces including Lilly, proprietor of Lilly’s on Lincoln Avenue where Kathy and I had our wedding reception party on her opening night.  Also saw her former business and life partner Steve, who tended bar for the afternoon bullshitting secessions of a hard core of us Lincoln Ave. philosopher princes, and who is now farming garlic in Wisconsin and the proud adoptive father of two.  You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Before getting into the second half of the program, a note on the audience is in order.  As more than one performer noted, this was a very good listening group.  Could chat and order drinks between sets, and listen quietly and attentively when the music began.  These days in most saloons there is continual chatter during performances.  And only one person had to be scolding for letting their cell phone go off.  

It was also a surprisingly temperate crowd.  If Fitzgerald’s was hoping to make a killing at the bar, they may have been disappointed.  The old Earl was notoriously a place for two fisted drinkers.  I did my best to live up expectations and then some.  But 40 years later folks seemed to have tapered off.  I saw a lot of soft drinks sold, and I only had three gin and tonics over the five hour concert.  I didn’t observe one boisterous or obnoxious drunk and no one puked in the men’s room.  I guess age, late arriving common sense, or doctor’s orders prevailed.

Back inside, Ed Holstein took some of the hosting duties, including spinning hilarious yarns, particularly the Vincent Price story.  I couldn’t do it justice, but hopefully it will make it onto the concert DVD that will soon be available.  Ed seems to have the same wardrobe and hair cut as forty years ago—a button shirt open over a black t-shirt, and a mass of wavy hair parted to one side.  It is only a little grayer now.  But Ed seems to have doubled in size.  Curious because Earl isn't treating him to restaurant dinners anymore.

Johnny Burns, son of the legendary mandolin picker Jethro Burns and one of the few performers who seemed ageless, broke out his Fender Stratocaster for a solo act and returned later backing up others.  That boy can pick.

Brian Bowers came on stage and laid his autoharp down.  Pulling paper from his pocket he read, often visibly fighting back tears, a moving if rambling salute to Earl that made a lot of us just a bit verklempt.

Claudia Schmidt reminded us all of what a powerful, versatile singer she is.  The lady has pipes. Michael Johnson, Chris Farrell, and Marty Peifer all turned in stellar sets.

Bonnie Kolak, who just released a new CD and who once reigned as the Queen of the Earl, was one of the most hotly anticipated acts of the night.  And she did not disappoint.  The same warm, impish smile, warm brown eyes, and easy rapport with the audience.  And her voice did not disappoint.   She can still soar to notes most of us can only imagine.  And she can still improvise as she showed on a great, extended blues number trading licks with Johnny Burns’s guitar.

The last act was an un-mysterious un-announced special guest.  He had signed on earlier, but had to cancel because of a scheduling conflict.  But no one thought that John Prine could actually stay away.  He didn’t.  He took the stage in his signature all black and promised Earl to play “anything you want.” Earl wanted to hear Hello in There.  With one of the best personal song bags in music, John had a lot of material to draw on.  At one point during a guitar interlude, he said he wished Steve Goodman, a peerless guitar master and frequent performing buddy, were here.  Then he saluted Steve by singing his salute to his father, The Old Man.  Another hanky moment.  Then Bonnie joined him to sing the Iris Demet's part on Angel from Montgomery.  The whole crowd, with Pionke leading, joined in on his classic Paradise.

Despite the occasional sniffles, I held up pretty well for a guy who weeps at Hallmark commercials.  But I lost it completely at the very end when all of the musicians assembled on stage and the booming baritone of Fred Holstein come over the p.a. system singing his signature song For All the Good People which was joined in by the whole crew.  Fred was a very close friend.  I bawled like a baby.

We drove home to Crystal Lake.  Kathy slipped a Steve Goodman CD on.  I spent the night dreaming.

Thanks to the Earl, all of the musicians, and to Marina Jason for a lifetime memory.


  1. Thank you Patrick. I feel I HAVE to share this.

  2. So sorry I hadn't kept up with Chris Farrell's Facebook page to know in advance of this splendid event. I had the delight of a long conversation with Earl when I drove down to see Chris perform some many months back. Would love to have saluted his birthday, and to have basked in the incendiary warmth of so many legends performing together.

  3. Great review Patrick. Wish I could have been there too, but this helps a lot. And I also thank Marina Jason for her good work in putting this all together.

  4. Just saw this, Patrick...thanks for the mention. It was great to see you there after so many decades! Didn't realize you live in Crystal Lake: I was out there the week after the Earl concert to visit Art Thieme, who's in a nursing home there.
    Saul Broudy

  5. Just stumbled on this 2 1/2 years later. Wonderful review of the event. Thanks, Patrick!

    Dean Milano

  6. I just came upon this as I've been in a Fred Holstein reminisce for a couple of days. Is there any chance a video, or even audio, of the gang singing "For All the Good People" with Fred Holstein's voice? He was brilliant.