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On Stage: Jim Post's motherlode of music and history

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What does one of America's leading troubadours do when he settles down? If he's Jim Post, and he lands in the storybook town of Galena, Illinois, he truly digs in.

While Post's legendary wanderlust has been subdued in Galena by a hilltop home, a beloved wife, and a newfound sense of community, his restless muse has been ghost hunting, digging into the abandoned mines that once provided 80 percent of the nation's lead and turned Galena into Illinois' first frontier boomtown. And though miners got most of Galena's lead out, Post has found a rich vein of history, legends, tales, and folklore that he has transformed into a superb one-man show of songs and bittersweet history. It reminds us all that the real wild and woolly west, the settling of America's wilderness, happened right around the corner, right down the road.

Post's show, Galena Rose: How Whiskey Won the West, borrows its name from a strain of lead ore mined from Galena's hills. Though Post's soaring tenor pipes produce some of the strongest, sweetest sounds this side of heaven, the show is anything but syrupy nostalgia. It's a musical-dramatic portrayal of real history, the kind that's all too often kept away from school kids--and ironically the kind that might actually provoke their interest in history. For it features flesh-and-blood characters--Indians betrayed, a runaway slave recaptured and freed, an Irish fugitive caught with his pants down, a pioneer woman uncertain about starting over in a town without lace curtains, and Mississippi River poleboat men, fueled by little more than dreams and drafts of whiskey--the whiskey, Post claims with ample historical evidence, that "won the west." Post recalls that even Abe Lincoln's father Tom sold two of his farms for whiskey before landing in Illinois.

More than history, the show is a collection of songs and patter--the kind of music and stage talk that has made Post one of the most theatrical of our singer-songwriters. The strength of the show is Post's cornucopia of original music, a rich, simmering stew that includes a mournful haunting Indian chant that sounds like--and can start--a grown man crying; a busy, playful, high-speed tongue twister that tells you what a frontier town didn't have; a moon-misty Mississippi River love song; and some of the best guitar and banjo picking heard on a Chicago stage since Stephen Wade took his one-man show Banjo Dancing to Washington, D.C.

If anything, Post's show eclipses Wade's. It offers so many more dimensions--music, comedy, drama, and history.

The show played to sold-out houses at the Old Town School of Folk Music last January, and since then has won rave reviews throughout the midwest--from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to Mississippi Queen steamboat cruises. The Detroit Free Press called the show a modern-day equivalent of a night with Mark Twain.

Ironically, Galena Rose provides an apex to Post's career--which includes a bona fide 60s hit, "Reach Out in the Darkness" (by Friend & Lover), dozens of songss, and hundreds of one-night stands throughout the country. Those who worried that Post's move to Galena ten years ago would turn into a premature retirement now have evidence that a troubadour can find art in community, as well as on the road.

Galena Rose opens Wednesday, November 16, at Civic Studio Theatre, 20 N. Wacker, for an indefinite stay. For ticket information, call 902-1500.

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