One must be a fan not only of the performer but of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture to enjoy a concert at Unity Temple. Otherwise one begins to notice the preponderance of bare concrete, the exposed pipes and radiators, and the cramped dimensions, which make the sanctuary resemble nothing so much as an empty swimming pool. On a hot night, which Saturday, Oct. 6, inarguably was, only an avid Wright groupie could endure the heat and the claustrophobia.
Nevertheless, lots of nice people cheerfully sweated their way to Unity Temple on Saturday to hear longtime Chicago folk singer Bonnie Koloc. Most of them were old enough to remember her heydey in the bar and cabaret scene of 1960s and ’70s Chicago, at back-in-the-day venues like the Earl of Old Town, Mr. Kelley’s and Orphans. And most audience members seemed genuinely pleased to be there, although more than one husband was heard to grumble that he doesn’t like folk music.
With a program rooted in folk and featuring occasional forays into jazz, Koloc shared anecdotes between songs from Chicago days gone by, when Old Town and Lincoln Park were full of cheap bars with live music, and gentrification was only a gleam in the minds of a few developers. Koloc was one of the heavy hitters in those days and seems to have known everybody. In between her songs, she told folksy stories about herself, her artist friends, and her brief, lonely, but successful stint in New York City.
Koloc’s songs, which are almost all original, are uncomplicated and straightforward, her subjects mostly on the happy side. Rooted in a deep, warm contralto, her voice can still leap to the stratosphere suddenly and with startling effect, although by the end of the night we’d heard that trick once or twice too often.
Two excellent jazz musicians sweated through the program along with Koloc: Steve Eisen on saxophone and flute and Don Stille on piano and accordion. The most exciting moments in the evening came courtesy of these two. In “Howling at the Moon,” Koloc’s vocal line and Eisen’s saxophone wove in and out of each other in close, haunting harmony. Stille added sparkle on the keyboards, with fingers flying faster than the speed of sight on his boogie-woogie piano, faster still on the accordion.
Our favorite song of the night was “Crumbs in the Butter,” written by Koloc for her husband. It’s a frank and humorous litany of the petty annoyances that accrue over the years in a marriage, and it was one of the few songs she sang that didn’t seem like it came from a younger, simpler time.
Like the rest of us, Koloc hasn’t gotten any younger since she strummed her guitar 40 years ago. She supervised the stage in the Unity sanctuary like a friendly, artsy schoolteacher. Cheerfully trying to make the best of the heat, she made everyone in the intimate space feel included, which is no easy feat in this venue, where sightlines proved problematic for those sitting on the top level or, for lack of a better term, the basement level.
Folk music can feel lonely and self-conscious on a concert stage, even one as intimate as Unity Temple. Bonnie Koloc made us all feel right at home. But as the night wore on, some of us began to wish that we could leave the house and find something more exciting to do.