Rick Kogan: Bonnie Koloc is back in Chicago, her music still with healing powers

Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

CHICAGO — Bonnie Koloc is coming back, which means that memories will flow for those who have been fortunate enough to have seen and heard her sing. Some of those memories go waaaaaay back. “It was 1969 for me,” says former Tribune photographer Charles Osgood. “The year after she came here and the first time I heard her, I fell in love with her. … But then so did everybody.”

Koloc came here by train from her native Iowa in 1968 and quickly became, at the Quiet Knight and Earl of Old Town, one of our most beloved singers. She has long lived back in Iowa with her husband of decades, the writer/teacher/publisher Robert Wolf, and does not get to Chicago often enough to suit her fans.

But Osgood estimates that he has taken “thousands of photos of her, maybe tens of thousands” and you will be able to see some of them, never before seen by the public by the way, in a slideshow when Koloc takes to the stage at the Hideout on the afternoon of June 8, her first time at this enterprising and cozy club.

One of the club’s owners, public school teacher Tim Tuten, is wildly excited and proud to have her. “I was too young to have gotten in the clubs to see her, to see her and Steve Goodman and John Prine,” he says. “But I celebrate them. They are like this power trio, and she is the living embodiment of that, making it a living, breathing thing.”

Koloc will share the stage with Mark Guarino, the author of “Country and Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival” (University of Chicago Press). He tells me, “This was a long time coming. A few months ago I went to Decorah, Iowa, and interviewed her in front of locals and she played a few songs at an indie bookstore. I loved Decorah and had a great time with Bonnie and Bob over two nights. So we are going to try to recreate it at the Hideout.”

The pair will dip into the memories, recall Koloc’s many recordings and concerts, her ups and downs. It has been quite a career. A few months after arriving here she shared gossip column space with Jimmy Durante, then appearing at the Empire Room, and that same year a newspaper critic wrote, “Bonnie Koloc doesn’t know where she’s going but the audience definitely knows where she’s at.” By 1971 she was headlining at Mister Kelly’s, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the audience.

There are some who will tell you that Koloc should have become a major star. But having watched and listened to her over the decades I take her at her word, especially in what she said to me a few years ago, “I have a great life. I find myself so much happier in my older years. Singing is my greatest joy. It has saved me.”

At the Hideout, Koloc will sing, accompanied by guitarist/singer/songwriter Steve Dawson, who not only has a new record about to be released but teaches Koloc’s songs in his songwriting classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

“There is something so youthful about Bonnie,” Guarino says. “She is full of spirit, ideas and is hilarious.”


The night before her Hideout appearance, Koloc will be at the Dime Gallery (1513 N. Western Ave.) for the opening of an exhibition of her artwork. “The first time I heard her sing ‘Jazzman’ I was a kid,” says artist/gallery owner Tony Fitzpatrick. “But she had a perfect upper register voice that could be mournful, lovely and transcendent. And her ‘I Can’t Sleep,’ a tribute to Steve Goodman, is a lovely lament that feels like a gospel song. I’ve not seen her in a long time, but many times years ago. Her art is just like her, elegant, coherent and poetic. … I adore her.”

Koloc has been a visual artist since childhood. In 1987, she returned to college to finish a bachelor’s degree in Art Education from the University of Northern Iowa. Since then she has been an active printmaker, painter and ceramist. She has had more than a few one-woman shows nationally and was part of 1999’s National Exhibition of the Los Angeles Printmaking Society.

She’s illustrated over a dozen books for Free River Press, her husband’s company. He and it are admirable, publishing collections of stories documenting life across America by people without literary ambition. She created the striking cover art and linocut decorations for Wolf’s “Heartland Portrait: Stories From the Rural Midwest” and for his two books with Oxford University Press: “An American Mosaic: Prose and Poetry by Everyday Folk” and “Jump Start: How to Write From Everyday Life.”

The Dime exhibition will continue for weeks and now the plan is for Koloc to be there on weekends. You might have the chance to meet her husband Wolf at the gallery. The ghosts of Steve Goodman and John Prine too. So many of those who once populated her world are gone. But many remain. Tuten and Tony Fitzpatrick will be hanging around and some new fans too. And if she happens to break out in song, she will do so because, as she says, “Everybody has hard times in life, and I feel that my music can be healing. It has been for me and I want people listening to me sing to feel that no matter how hard things are, there will always be a better day. It is my mission, of sorts, to transmit my own joy to people listening to me.”

And, yes, as ever, Osgood will be around, a camera in his hands.


“An Afternoon of Conversation and Music with Bonnie Koloc” will be 4 p.m. June 8 at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave.; tickets $20 (ages 21+) at hideoutchicago.com.


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