There are two ways of looking at Chicago’s new West Loop restaurant and music venue, City Winery, just as there are two ways of looking at the fact that Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham performed there this week.
City Winery is a swank, Sonoma-esque spot, all open air and exposed blond brick, with bottles and casks and tanks of wine in nearly every sight line. A series of connected spaces — restaurant, bar, patio and the 300-seat listening room — it buzzes with attentive staff and golf-shirted suburbanites. The tony dcor and upscale menu (including dozens of superb wines on tap) intend to align themselves with similarly upscale artistry on stage, with upcoming singer-songwritery bookings building on the venue’s original New York acclaim (below).
Which means it’s easy to walk around the place and say, “Jeez, this place isn’t very Chicago.” And just as easy to exclaim, “Wow, it’s like I’m not even in Chicago!”
Seeing Buckingham in this setting was similarly both worrying and revelatory.
At first, it screamed cautionary tale. As he himself admitted Monday, the second of a two-night stand at City Winery, his now-lengthy chain of solo tours have whittled down from a 10-piece band to just this current incarnation: Lindsey alone, with just a rack of guitars, a few occasional backing tracks and his many O-faces for company. Watching this mega-selling mega-talent take such an intimate stage — surrounded by people eating paella balls and sipping cab franc — was at first like discovering a great actor reduced to doing dinner theater in Florida.
But, as in our interview last year, Buckingham on Monday sermonized from the stage about the relative virtues of the “big machine” (Fleetwood Mac, which is making noise about another reunion next year) and the “small machine” (the eponymous albums and tours). He referred to the latter as a “strange little experiment,” despite the fact he’s managed to produce three solo albums (plus two live sets) in the last six years — without the band’s trademark hijacking of his material. He still worries about “feeling unseen” (“Not Too Late”), but he’s determined to keep powering the little machine until it makes a noise that can at least be heard above the grinding gears of his bread-and-butter factory.
Monday’s performance, like last year’s show at the Vic, certainly buttresses his individual artistry. Buckingham talks of big and small machines, and they are each within him. The wide dynamic swings he makes in concert — if he brings it down to a murmur, get ready, because it’s about to get very loud, and vice versa — stretch and pull even his simplest tunes into diffusions of grandeur. Especially on his flat-faced guitar, his whisper-to-a-scream approach to vocals and guitar transformed “Shut Us Down,” “Never Going Back Again” and “Big Love,” whose rearrangement in 1997 Buckingham said turned into the template for much that followed.
The intimacy of a venue like City Winery is divine for fans of a player like Buckingham, even though the sound in that reverberating brick-and-stone room still faces some challenges. The up-close-and-personal view of this man’s extraordinary right hand — which I would enshrine alongside those of, say, Franz Liszt or Satchel Paige — made watching the workouts of the edgy solo in “Come” and the all-too-brief instrumental “Stephanie” (from the pre-Mac Buckingham Nicks LP) a semi-religious experience. As he said during the encore-demanding ovation, “Small but mighty!”
As is that City Winery room. Constant on-the-feet ovations, hearty guffaws, shouted song requests — Monday’s show at least felt like Chicago. That feisty local spirit added to City Winery’s tiny food plates and big talents should help it steer clear of the living taxidermy of some high-brow venues. There’s definitely space for another S.P.A.C.E. in this market.
Some upcoming City Winery shows worth checking out (info and tickets at citywinery.com/chicago):
Suzanne Vega, Sept. 8-9 — Vega’s take on “fast folk” is disarming three decades on. Vocally subtle but powerful, she’s full of stories and good tunes. (Ms. Vega: “Marlene on the Wall,” please.)
Bebel Gilberto, Sept. 14-15 — This cool, sultry bossa nova singer (Joao Gilberto’s daughter) might be a bit sleepy for a room of people quaffing wine, but she’s known to break out the sass.
Joan Osborne, Sept. 16-17 — If God were one of us, he’d have my job and wouldn’t shut up about how great Osborne’s shows are. “Forget ye about her one-hit wonder,” he would sayeth, “lest ye miss a talent as rock-solid a Mount Sinai.”
Matthew Sweet, Sept. 20-21 — Sweet is still on the tour in which he performs his 1991 alt-rock magnum opus “Girlfriend,” and hearing him rock it is like being back in the arms of a good friend. (Cue drums!)
Klezmer Brunch, every Sunday — A delicious alternative to the ubiquitous gospel brunch, this menu livens things up with a revolving lineup of klezmer musicians — lox, stock and bagel.
Lindsey Buckingham’s set list Monday night:
“Cast Away Dreams”
“Bleed to Love Her”
“Not Too Late”
“Shut Us Down”
“Never Going Back Again”
“I’m So Afraid”
“Go Your Own Way”
“Walk a Thin Line” (partial)
“Rock Away Blind”
“Seeds We Sow”