The name Al Scorch keeps popping up around Chicago venues and house shows, usually via enthusiastic mentions from folk fans. Scorch (pictured above, right) may pen himself as country soul, but it’s all the same stew.
We met at Cole’s in Logan Square and chatted over some beers (me: Tecate; him: Revolution Brewery’s Eugene Porter, then a bunch of Old Style) and the sound of oldies records being spun by a friend of his. The DJ’s playlist included Cab Calloway and Dolly Parton, choices that Al seemed quite happy about.
The self-described fourth generation Chicagoan picked up his mom’s banjo one day and started learning. He eventually decided to follow some punk bands on their tour, opening their shows with his solo banjo sets, belting out gritty vocals to the audience, and getting asked to do more. Those shows gave him a taste of the DIY attitude that punk bands are so good at, and he’s been running with it ever since.
Being both participant and observer of the city’s history, he has a lot to say about it, even in the category of cheap beer (Hamm’s was once king before Old Style ruled the neon-sign real estate). Scorch believes Chicago is perfect for young performers. “Folks here are exposed to a lot of music so they know what they like and are supportive of stuff they like—especially if it’s local. You can try new material and then disappear to get back to work. It’s been said before, Chicago is a great place to fail.”
Not that he’s failing. Last year saw the release of his album Tired Ghostly Town, a ten-track looking glass into stories and characters that share history with Chicago. The track “Board Up the Windows” kicks the album off with a frenetic explosion of fast picking that makes you want to stomp and yell. The slower “Working Dream” has pitch-perfect fiddle wrapping around the instrument ensemble and wholehearted vocal harmony in the chorus. Every song is worth a listen, and some will latch onto your heart.
Scorch’s name is getting bigger with every show. Check him out at Subterranean tonight at 8 p.m., where he’ll be in a trio with his trusty drummer/percussionist and bass player. For info, subt.net.
Scott Standley is a contributing music critic for Chicago magazine.
Photograph: Courtesy of the artist