Live from Old Town SchoolOut of the box: hundreds of vintage performances of classic roots moments now released.

Label:    Independent (Old Town School Recordings)
Time:     127 downloads available

There are some places that act as magnets for musicians as well as their fans; venues where both will travel for a memorable musical experience that is more intimate and skilled than a run-of-the-mill theatre gig. This is where musicians can relax to perform music outside their normal repertoire and where a crowd excites them to give their best.

As much a working educational facility as the name suggests, but with concert halls to welcome guests and celebrate its creativity, Old Town School of Folk Music has been a staple of the Chicago music scene since 1957.

Good things grow and the list of artists appearing here shows how healthily diverse the venue’s appeal has been. The school has played host to folk artists from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Martin Carthy to Steve Earle; but folk often extends to blues, world and beyond, so it has also seen Big Bill Broonzy, Los Plenaros de la 21, Bill Frisell, Taj Mahal and Oumou Sangare amongst its performers.

This collection was put together by archivists Colby Maddox and Paul Tyler, who sifted through thousands of hours of performances, which had been sitting on shelves and in cardboard boxes, to get decades of shows onto DAT.

The first 127 tracks (there will be others later) have now been released for download. Some of these are kept in mini-sets of three or four songs from one artist, while others are simply standalone standouts. Most are intimate shows, often with solo artists or with just one or two backing musicians or singers to round out the sound.

The review disc contains 21 tracks that show both the sound quality and the breath of material. Even Mahalia Jackson’s account of “When the Saints Go Marching in” from 1956 has a clean sound, beautifully rendered to fit very comfortably alongside far more recent recordings.

Some here are less inspiring than others. “Doc” Watson’s “Blue-Eyed Jane” is virtually doggerel, but the guitar work that led to his Grammy Lifetime Achievement award just saves it.

But there are as many strong songs as you would expect from decades of recordings. For me, the highlight is definitely Toumani Diabate’s “Jarabi,” his exquisite kora playing lasting frustratingly short of four minutes on the sampler, but enjoying over seven minutes on the download.

It is one of three great tracks in a row. Around it, Donovan charges through “Mellow Yellow,” helped by a particularly enthusiastic crowd; while Joan Baez gives a rousing account of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

The school has pre-sorted the 127 downloads into four blocks: Volume One is Family Music, including Peter Case singing “Something Happens” and the enjoyable novelty of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy covering “Three is the Magic Number.” Volumes Two and Three are New Folk and Trad Folk respectively. Highlights on the former include Steve Earle’s “Goodbye,” one of three pieces from him, and Jon Langford of the Mekons singing the Procol Harum classic “Homburg.” The trad selection is actually far wider than folk, including gospel and several blues numbers, such as an inviting two versions of “Come on in my Kitchen.” The final bunch is a shorter collection of World Music, covering artists from France, Serbia, Brazil, Israel and Mali.

The full track-listing is available at

Derek Walker