Jul 12, 2023 - Things to Do

Chicago music spotlight: Flo Estes and Dolly Varden

Woman with gray hair, glasses, smiling in front of shelves of records and a piano.

Flo Estes gets ready to play her first big gig at Jarvis Square Pottery in April. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

I've been listening to "Jolly on the Inside" — the debut album of septuagenarian Chicago labor organizer and songwriter Flo Estes — on repeat for the last three months.

Driving the news: Estes opens Saturday at Space in Evanston for alt-country treasure Dolly Varden, a quintet led by Estes' songwriting teacher Steve Dawson.

Backstory: For years the organizer and teacher performed at union meetings and coffeeshop open mics, but her songs "were just for me," Estes told reporter Mark Guarino in a WBEZ story in April.

  • That changed when she took a songwriting class with Dawson at The Old Town School of Folk Music and presented so many amazing tunes that he urged her to record an album at his Wicker Park studio.
  • I caught her record release show last spring at Jarvis Square Pottery in Rogers Park and was blown away.

Her sound: Think Iris DeMent and Jewel meet Aimee Mann and Amy Rigby.

Her songs: Estes explores depression, love, forgiveness and joy with the playful semi-rocker "Personal Vigilante," the literature-laced "Remains Of The Day" and bittersweet "Jukebox."

Bonus: After Estes' set Saturday, Dolly Varden will play a show celebrating the 10th anniversary of their terrific album "For A While," featuring the ultra-lovely favorite "Mayfly."

If you go: Tickets are $17-$20.

Woman sitting at music stand, man standing behind playing guitar, singer with guitar seated center, man with guitar standing behind piano.
Flo Estes, backed by bassist Tim Hoyer, singer Emily Haden Lee and her Old Town songwriting teacher Steve Dawson (left back row) who she will open for Saturday at Space. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

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