They came to praise Steve Goodman. Seasoned songwriters like Jackson Browne and Lyle Lovett. Rising stars like Iris DeMent and Todd Snider. Old pals like John Prine and Emmylou Harris. And the late, great Stevie handed all of them their lunch.
The Chicago folk singer died of leukemia at 36 in 1984, but he showed up on a big video screen several times at his tribute concert Thursday at the Medinah Temple, a benefit for the Old Town School of Folk Music. Bushy bearded or clean shaven, shaggy haired or wearing a baseball cap, Goodman was smiling, playing his guitar and singing about the view from a train they call the City of New Orleans and reveling in the lost cause known as the Chicago Cubs. He sang gleefully about the pleasures of talking backward and lamented that ``You never call me darlin,' darlin.' ''
The archival footage could not have been more simple and straightforward -- a songwriter singing his songs, a man loving life even as he was dying -- and the illusion of his presence lit up the room. DeMent took the stage after the opening clip and joked that singers ``used to tell me that they dreaded having to follow Steve,'' and she fumbled the opening chords of Goodman's ``If She Were You'' as if to offer proof. But she recovered in fine fashion with her ``Our Town,'' which though written only a few years ago has the gravity and grace of a classic.
Her performance set a high standard for the night, and also pointed out its shortcomings -- some of the singer-songwriters did not know Goodman personally and were incapable of offering a particularly deep insight into his universe. Snider was one of the only headliners willing to delve into Goodman's wellspring of humor by performing the honoree's ``This Hotel Room'' and following it with his snide ``My Generation (Part 2).''
But country singer Kathy Mattea seemed out of place and so did the estimable Lovett, who offered a typically understated version of Goodman's ``I Just Keep Falling in Love.'' Their slots might better have been filled by some of Goodman's old Earl of Old Town cronies, such as Bonnie Koloc, David Bromberg or Ed and Fred Holstein.
Arlo Guthrie reprised his hit version of ``City of New Orleans,'' slower and more mystical than Goodman's brisk original, and his increasingly nasal delivery was perfectly suited to a ukelele-strumming version of Bob Dylan's ``All Along the Watchtower.''
Harris illuminated Goodman's bittersweet ``Yellow Coat'' and then brought out Mattea and DeMent for wondrous three-part harmonies in one of the few attempts at collaboration. Browne did justice to one of Goodman's best late-period tunes, ``Grand Canyon Song,'' and Prine brought a wrenching poignance to ``My Old Man'' that was informed by the depth of their friendship.
But in the end, after a ramshackle, ensemble version of ``City of New Orleans,'' it was the images of Goodman that lingered. Those songs, that smile, the mischief in those eyes -- he remains a tough act to follow.