Review: Kurt Elling @ The Green Mill

"Make me sound taller."

I'm sure not every sound engineer gets that as a request, but Saturday night it seemed apropos, as Chicago native Kurt Elling took the stage at the Green Mill, a space not known for having good sight lines when the place is at capacity. Well, not if you're shorter than six feet and change.

With showtime at 8pm, I got there at 7, after having a tasty dinner at Crew next door, and the room is three-quarters full already. At 7:30, admittance was being halted as apparently they'd hit the occupancy limit and are doing the "one person leaves means that one can come in" thing. Still, there are 10-20 people waiting outside for the rest of the night.

The cause for such an immense crowd can be traced to a couple of factors. As a regular host in weekly shows at the Green Mill, Elling enjoyed nice-sized audiences that only got larger and larger as he put out more and more product on the Blue Note label. Those weekly spots ended when he began to tour extensively overseas in 2006 or so. He also hasn't performed in Chicago proper since around early 2007, with last year's show at Ravinia with Ramsey Lewis was canceled. A steady demand and no supply makes fans very anxious. The Saturday show was the second night of his appearance, and I'm told Friday was just as full.

Piano virtuoso and Elling collaborator Laurence Hobgood, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Ulysses Owens provided the foundation for Elling and special guest saxophonist Ernie Watts, whose career has spanned four decades. Hobgood's first solo album, When the Heart Dances, is being released today.

Through two sets and a little under three hours, the standing room only crowd was treated to selections from Elling's last album, Nightmoves, as well as a few surprises (Steppin' Out, Golden Lady) and selections from his new project, which he says will be out in the summer.

Considering the demand, a $12 cover was a deal, and I spent three hours standing up, but enjoyed the music immensely. It's probably best if he not stay away too long again, if only for the sake of the growing number of people who want to hear him live.

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