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Concert review: Dave Alvin at City Winery

Greg Kot

9:31 AM CDT, August 22, 2012

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City Winery is positioning itself at the upper crust of the Chicago music scene, a venue where patrons can sip vintage wine and dine on pricey food while listening to top-shelf musicians in what is billed as a state-of-the-art listening room.

For some, that may sound a tad pretentious by Chicago’s rough-and-tumble standards. So it was encouraging to see a little looseness prevail Tuesday for the venue's musical christening (after an opening residency by comedian Lewis Black).

Dave Alvin was on hand, and so was opener Robbie Fulks – an astute pairing of likeminded musical comrades. Alvin is steeped in the Los Angeles that has little to do with Hollywood glamour. Fulks is a longtime Chicagoan with deep roots in the South. Together they put on a show long on durable songs and a kind of shaggy affability that, by concert’s end, suggested a living-room hootenanny.

Alvin’s pedigree goes back 30 years, including tenures in bands such as the Blasters, X and the Knitters with a deep affinity for blues, country, soul and early rock ‘n’ roll. He’s usually backed by a band, but on this night he started out alone, an acoustic troubadour in a fedora, fingerpicking his way through the vagabond blues of “King of California” and “Harlan County Line.”

Alvin gruffly talk-sings his way through the tunes, flattening his melodies and putting the emphasis on narrative. Like another old Los Angeles writer, Raymond Chandler, he’s got a feel for noir-ish scenarios, economical phrasing and vivid scene-setting. His songs open like novels: “Down in Houston, Texas, on a Christmas night/With a gun in his hand and his name up in lights”; “Standin' barefoot in your kitchen door/Listenin' to the soft evenin' rain/Watchin' you dryin' off from your shower/You look at me like you don't know my name.”

It was stark, shot-and-a-beer medicine, laid out without apology or sentimentality. Alvin paid tribute to the songwriters and artists who have inspired him, all of them long gone: Mississippi John Hurt, Bill Morrissey, Amy Farris (to whom he dedicated the eulogy “Black Rose of Texas”), longtime bandmate Chris Gaffney (who got his due in the wry-hearted “Two Lucky Bums”) and the Mississippi Sheiks’ Bo Carter.

Alvin also shared the stage with sharp blues harpist Bob Kessler and longtime collaborator Christy McWilson, his duet partner on the lilting “Manzanita” and the smoldering “Dry River,” a tale of repressed passion.

Alvin’s sharply etched songs were matched by Fulks in his typically brisk opening set. The singer emphasized his hard-country material, including tracks from a forthcoming album painted in plaintiveness and bluegrass. He and Rob Gjersoe swapped lightning guitar leads, trading smiles even as they sang of bleakness and blood. “Hope that lifted everyone’s spirits a bit,” Fulks cracked after the disturbing revenge tale “I Just Want to Meet the Man.”

Fulks and Gjersoe returned to join Alvin, McWilson and Kessler for the encore, which touched on deep folk and blues before winding up with the Blasters’ raucous “Marie, Marie.”

Here’s hoping City Winery can continue such musical pairings and encourage performers to go beyond their routine sets to collaborate with one another. Talent buyer Colleen Miller and owner Michael Dorf have deep musical connections that span decades, and that knowledge should help encourage more performers to stretch. In that sense, City Winery has the potential to be Chicago’s answer to a club like Largo in Los Angeles, a similar sit-down setting with an emphasis on musical give-and-take and guest drop-ins.

Though I have misgivings about the munch-while-you-watch music experience that City Winery offers, the vibe Tuesday wasn’t stuffy or distracting at all. A lot had to do with the performers and their rapport with the audience, which was attentive and focused on the music throughout. The sound system needs some tweaking, as several outbreaks of feedback during inopportune moments made apparent. But given time, those should be worked out. Otherwise, given the quality of the room and the bookings through year’s end, City Winery looks like a formidable addition to a scene with no shortage of well-run clubs.

greg@gregkot.com