Opinion

Bob Dylan, Edouard Manet and roots royalty in Chicago

Tom Russell show spawns coincidences, connections

The extra microphones gave it away.

This was the night of June 8, in a wonderful honky-tonk roadhouse outside Chicago called FitzGerald’s.

It was our fifth or sixth trip to FitzGerald’s to see Tom Russell, my favorite singer-songwriter. His music has been called Americana, roots, folk, cowboy — I’d say everything but opera, except Russell once did a stunningly ambitious album titled “The Rose of Roscrae,” a 52-song folk opera.

Whatever you want to call his music, nobody writes better songs than Russell.

At the show earlier this month, Russell — playing alone — was halfway through his first set when he mentioned offhandedly that some friends might be dropping by FitzGerald’s, in Berwyn, from the Blues Fest, which was playing that weekend at Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Then, during Russell’s set break, stagehands brought out a couple extra microphones.

I caught the eye of Joe Way, who smiled and said, “Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.”

Way was seated at our table by pure coincidence. He and his wife, Anne, had spent a couple of days at Blues Fest, then come out to FitzGerald’s for the Russell show. We had two empty seats — the club only holds about 300 — and they asked if they could join us.

You want coincidence? The Ways live in McFarland. More? I wrote a newspaper column about them in 2012.

Joe and Anne are big fans of Leonard Cohen and when I wrote about them, they were hosting an international gathering of Cohen aficionados in Madison.

In Tom Russell’s excellent book of essays, “Ceremonies of the Horsemen,” he writes of his admiration for Cohen and quotes him on songwriting: “If I knew where good songs come from, I’d go there more often.”

The night of June 8, the extra microphones on the FitzGerald’s stage were for Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who had played a late afternoon set at Blues Fest. Alvin is a roots rocker out of southern California — a boyhood bandmate of Madisonian Frank Furillo, lead singer of The Rousers. Gilmore is a Texan who started The Flatlanders with Joe Ely. Alvin, who has written songs with Russell, and Gilmore recently cut an album together titled “Downey to Lubbock."

What a treat to see them play with Russell. That stage held abundant respect, affection and rough humor. They played some Russell songs and a Townes Van Zandt number, “White Freightliner Blues.” It was one of those great nights that’s more magical because it happened spontaneously.

The next morning, my wife, Jeanan, slept in and I went for a walk around Oak Park, where we were staying, adjacent to Berwyn, before driving to downtown Chicago Sunday afternoon.

I learned some things walking the Hemingway District in Oak Park, which includes Ernest Hemingway’s birth house on Oak Park Avenue, and, a few blocks away on Chicago Avenue, the onetime home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.

I found a plaque at nearby Scoville Park that said it was designed by Jens Jensen, the landscape architect who designed Glenwood Children’s Park, which is less than 100 yards from my front door in Madison.

Elsewhere in Scoville Park, there is a bust of Percy Julian, the celebrated African American chemist and longtime Oak Park resident. Percy’s son, Percy Julian Jr., who died in 2008, was a pioneering civil rights attorney in Madison, and my good friend. Percy’s law partner, Jeff Scott Olson, attended the Russell concert with us.

It was a weekend of connections and coincidences.

Sunday afternoon, in downtown Chicago, we went first to the American Writers Museum on North Michigan Avenue. We’d been there two years earlier when the museum opened with an exhibit of the original scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road.”

Tom Russell’s new album is called “October in the Railroad Earth,” the name of a Kerouac prose-poem, and the title song is an homage to Jack Kerouac.

This summer the Writers Museum has an exhibit, titled “Bob Dylan: Electric,” which focuses on the year 1965 and offers the chance to listen to various renditions of Dylan’s 1965 song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (my favorite: Nina Simone’s), along with an opportunity to view Dylan’s handwritten manuscript of the song.

Clarence Clemons once wrote that Bob Dylan is a fan of Tom Russell’s song “Gallo del Cielo.”

Later we visited the Art Institute of Chicago, just a few blocks south on Michigan Avenue from the Writers Museum. The lead exhibit, through Sept. 8, features the late paintings of Edouard Manet. As a bit of a fine art neophyte — it was my first trip to the institute — I was more impressed with some of the pieces in the permanent collection. I didn’t realize Edward Hopper’s famed “Nighthawks,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” and Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” are all housed in Chicago.

We finished the weekend at a family-run restaurant in Lincoln Park called Tarantino’s. My sister, who lives there and appears on track to visit all 8,000 of the city’s restaurants, recommended it and joined us. It was superb. Alas, the only connection I can report was my fork to the lobster ravioli.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


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