Bill Fox at Uncommon Ground

Four years ago, The Believer published a remarkable article by Joe Hagan in its annual music issue about a singer-songwriter I’d never heard of: Bill Fox. And the magazine came with a CD featuring a beautiful song by Fox, “My Baby Crying.” Fox gave up playing music after releasing two albums of folk rock, Shelter From the Smoke (1997) and Transit Byzantium (1998). Before that, he’d played scrappy garage power pop in the 1980s in the Mice, who had one of their songs, “Bye Bye Kitty Cat,” covered by Superchunk. Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices was a Mice fan, as it’s easy to see why.

But by the time Hagan wrote his loving ode to Fox’s music in 2007, Fox didn’t even own a guitar. Fox, who has struggled in the past with manic depression, was working as a telemarketer. He declined to be interviewed. One of Fox’s friends relayed his reaction to the reporter: “Man, I don’t want to be on the internet.” Out of respect for Fox’s wishes, The Believer did not put its article about Fox online. However, it is on Hagan’s website here. According to Hagan, Fox’s brother, Tommy, described him as “a crabby loner and contrarian who barely makes ends meet and refuses to talk about his music with anyone, especially a reporter.”

It was a fascinating, poignant story, and as I soon discovered, Fox’s music was great, too — with touches of Bob Dylan and other classic folk musicians, along with the acoustic sides of Big Star and Guided By Voices, but more than anything, just heartfelt, well crafted melodic songs. (You can hear some of his songs on this myspace page.) Since The Believer article was published, Fox has begun playing a few shows now and then. Unbeknownst to me (or practically anyone) he came to Chicago in 2009 for a performance at Quenchers. And this past Saturday (July 2), he was back, playing in front of an appreciative audience filling a small room, Uncommon Ground on Devon Avenue.

Given what I’d read about Fox, I was both eager and a little apprehensive about seeing him in concert. I hoped for a triumphant return by a singer rediscovering his love for music and his fans. I feared … I’m not sure what, but something going awry. There did not turn out to be much drama — just a guy with an acoustic guitar, playing some excellent songs. I believe a few of them were either new songs or old ones he never released, but he also played some of his most memorable tunes, including “Get Your Workingman’s Things,” “Let in the Sun,” “Over and Away She Goes” and “Lonesome Pine.” After playing for a little under an hour, Fox left the stage. The crowd clearly wanted an encore, but that was all Fox was going to play on this night. I hope to see him again.

Kudos to Chicago singer-songwriter Dan Phillips, who performs under the name Zapruder Point, and who helped to bring Fox to Chicago as part of this show. Zapruder Point was originally scheduled as the headliner, but switched places in the lineup, opening for Fox with a nice set of his own songs. (His music can be heard on Bandcamp.)