Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Exile In Old Town School

| January 23, 2008

Tribute To Exile On Main St.
Old Town School Of Folk Music, Chicago
Friday, January 18, 2008

Having an ensemble recreate a classic album is hardly a novel concept, but there was something diabolically reverent and iconoclastic going on with Exile On Main St. on Friday. As performed by Old Town School faculty, alumni, and students, The Rolling Stones’ rambling double album was granted surprising new angles while simultaneously giving the School a chance to rock out.

From a historical/political perspective, it’s easy to see why some folkies would be interested in Exile. In 1971, The Stones were being harassed by the British government for unpaid taxes (boo!), so the whole band uprooted and moved to France. (There’s also a flimsy Chicago connection, as Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville was rumored to be a song-for-song response to the Stones’.)

Musically, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were pulling the band’s sound in opposite directions, and the latter won this round. Jagger and Bill Wyman were growing ever impatient with Richards’ appetite for narcotics, though (William S. Burroughs, John Lennon, and Gram Parsons were stopping by to indulge him), and nebulous recording sessions meant rarely were all band members (and side players) in the same room at the same time. Jagger himself has admitted dissatisfaction with the record, not only because his vocals are buried, but he thought the sound was regressive. As history would bear out, Exile is the end of an era for The Stones — a primitive rock and blues recording, a far cry from where Jagger would lead them during the ’70s.

In the School’s hands, all of Exile‘s trademark American elements were exploited. Playing the songs in order and taking rests where you’d have to flip the vinyl over, the musicians were able to lift it out of its murky, bloodshot prowling and celebrate the sprawling variety hidden in the slipshod mixing job. The task of opener “Rocks Off” fell to no less than 15 musicians, only one of whom was a straight-up vocalist, and two bassists were employed to secure its rhythm and keep the Stonesyness intact. “Rip This Joint” purged half the stage to become suitably leaner and make room for its fiestiness while Chris Walz led a trio for “Shake Your Hips,” pronouncing its hard Chicago blues elements and begging for a John Lee Hooker cameo: “boom boom boom boom.”

It’s a testament to an album when it’s more than its hits, and the Old Town School were careful not to let “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy” run the table, despite Cathy Norton’s howling vocal on the former. Steve Dawson and Phil Angotti turned in a straightforward but searing version of “Loving Cup,” though a set-closing “Soul Survivor” was predictably over the top, involving as many musicians as they could fit onstage.

But some performances were nuanced enough to give Exile‘s darker corners an overdue revisitation. “Casino Boogie” was pared to a duo on banjo and knee-slaps, and later “Sweet Black Angel” came soulfully alive via the four members of Jeff Frankel’s family. The sheer power of the ensembles moved “Torn And Frayed” into Band territory and “Shine A Light” into full-on gospel mode, a redemption The Stones boys were probably unwilling to seek near the peak of their debauchery. Coming from any or all angles the School handled it for them.

As a reward, the ensemble threw in “Gimme Shelter” and “Street Fighting Man” as encores, taking advantage of having everyone on their feet and making the pristine music hall appear nearly riotous. But even those couldn’t dilute the ambitious evening’s impact and holding out hope another classic can be reborn in their hands.

— Steve Forstneger

Category: Live Reviews, Weekly

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  1. jimmy t says:

    thanx for the brilliantly written review steve
    just a few corrections of names…
    chris winter led shake your hips
    joel frankel brought the family in for sweet black angel

    glad you were served well
    with tea & sympathy

    jimmy t