Farms, Cowboys, and Dead Animals

Acoustic music naturally lends itself to an intimate gathering and brings to mind a sense of community and interconnectedness, of simpler times and warm hearts. On March 9, those came together beautifully at Chicago Acoustic Underground’s first house benefit concert.

Even the way the concert developed seemed like a natural advancement, like one of the many chord progressions that have been recorded in the Lincoln Park studio since Michael Teach started his labor of love for singer/songwriters over a year and a half ago. Late last year Michael and I began discussing hosting benefit concerts, but with the holidays there was a brief pause in our plans. Then on Christmas day he posted a blog on his MySpace entitled “Transitions”. One of those transitions was the loss of his mother last summer, very unexpectedly, to pancreatic cancer.

After reading that, CAU Alumni Jessica Robbins contacted him. Her mother, Lynda Robbins, is the Executive Director of the Michael Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.

The four of us met for lunch, and from there Michael took the reins. The result is now a monthly series of House Concerts to benefit this foundation, all leading up to a big blowout bash this summer co-hosted by Chicago Acoustic Underground and The Local Tourist. All of the house concerts will feature Chicago Acoustic Underground artists.

The benefits are for a somber cause, but they remind us to kick back and revel in life right now. The artists for this inaugural show certainly knew how to do that. Wil Maring and Robert Bowlin came up from Cobden, Illinois, and the duet played Americana songs about farms, cowboys, and dead animals.

Wil described her music as homesick bluegrass. “People get murdered, thrown in a river, there’s cheating, and a whole bunch of dead animal songs,” she said. “I have a disproportionate number of dead animal songs.”

And later: “Here’s another one that’s a lot of fun even if it is about a dead horse.”

In another story she told of their first house concert, which was in Mokena. Upon arriving they learned the crowd wanted sea shanties and sing-a-longs. Well, they didn’t have any sea shanties and sing-a-longs, so the crowd “sat there like rows of tombstones.”

Wil kept throwing out anecdotes and jokes. Her way of speaking was so comfortable I stuck my thumbs in my belt loops and remembered, fondly, my childhood in rural Terre Haute, Indiana. “Bottomlands” in particular reminded me of riding my bike through the back country roads with a bunch of pilfered carrots from the fridge to feed to the horses at the farm three miles down, and of four-wheeling with the boys that lived on my short gravel road, and of playing hide-and-go-seek in the cornfields until hearing the whirr and rumble of the combines, and of playing kick-the-can in the dark with fireflies dotting the night. I was reminded of a time when popcorn balls in your Halloween bag were a treasure from the bus driver that lived down the way a bit. I remembered shooting a bow and arrow into the target taped onto a big cardboard box in the back yard, and of being shot by my brother with his new BB gun. I reminisced of hiking through the woods and the crick on the other side of the cornfield and bringing home turtles and frogs and even snakes.

Yep – you can take the girl out of Indiana….

But honestly, what spoke to me the most was that I’d never heard that type of music growing up. Wil’s and Robert’s songs effectively evoked a rural experience to a woman who grew up listening to Mozart, Wagner, Stan Kenton, Chuck Mangione, Melissa Manchester, and Rod Stewart. I’ve been going to the symphony since I could understand what “shhhh” meant and balled my eyes out at Les Miserables when I was 12. Until being invited into Chicago Acoustic Underground’s world I’d never really known what Americana music sounded like, and more importantly, what it meant.

I won’t say yet that I know, but I’m learning, and I was honored to be one of the few who could experience this intimate environment surrounded by folks who were also there to connect and give back a little. Besides Wil & Robert, there were several CAU alumni in attendance who know a thing or two about telling a story, setting a mood, and making you feel like you’re exactly where you should be at that moment. Maura Lally and Peggy Browning, Simon Flory, Jeff Brown, and Mark Dvorak to name a few.

I guess what I’m saying is, make sure you get to the next one. The studio’s tiny, so there’s only room for 36 people. I’ll keep you posted as I find out the details.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the Michael Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation, visit their website.

(I wasn’t sure where to fit this in, but I wanted to mention that Wil sings “Don’t Fence Me In” in such a way that you can actually tell Cole Porter wrote it. There’s much more that I can tell you about the show, but you’ll have to wait until it’s posted on CAU, because of course the whole experience was recorded!)


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