Tom Rush: Humor, History, and a Sacred Trust
Tom Rush strode to the mic, relaxed and natural, and launched into song with an easy manner that seemed to suggest that it was normal to do so, that anyone could do this for a living. His penchant for storytelling and his reputation for skewed, pointed, humor were in full swing from the start.
Rush did what he does best, which is to live inside his skin, and sing from there. One has to appreciate the place Rush comes from, historically, as well as geographically. As a cornerstone of the folk revival, Rush recorded songs by Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne before they became household names. For Rush, the folk scene was centered in New England, and specifically Club 47 in Cambridge. The list of his contemporaries reads like a history book, or a who’s who of American popular music.
Over the two hours that followed, Rush walked the audience across the winding path of his back catalog, as well as over the fresh trail of his newer material. The audience was eager to go along on the trip, their intimate relationship with the artist, his body of work, and their own memories, forming a sacred trust that both the performer and the ticketholder held in a covenant of mutual respect.
The first set featured humorous songs mixed with classic time capsule moments, including Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” This was followed by a 50s rock n’ roll song that Rush said he had only just written. The chorus offered up the question, “How can she dance like that and still have the heart of an angel?”
During the evening Rush at times left the stage, turning the spotlight over to Matt Nakoa. Nakoa impressed with his singing, songwriting, and skillful musicianship. Able to move from jazzy cool to buoyant and hopeful, to quiet reflection, it was clear from the onset that Nakoa has talent in abundance. Returning to the stage Rush told the audience that he first met Nakoa when he hired him to mow Rush’s lawn.
The second set started with “Cold River,” a song Rush wrote with the idea of submitting it to the Civil Wars. As Rush tells it, he was turned on to the band by his fifteen-year-old, only to find, upon finishing the song, that they had broken up a year earlier.
Highlights of the second set included “The River Song,” a ballad detailing the time Rush spent living on the Snake River in Wyoming, with author Renee Askins. Askins’ book, Shadow Mountain, tells the story of the return of wolves to Yellowstone Park. “Voices,” one of the newer tunes, seemed to fit perfectly alongside career defining songs like “Merrimac County,” and “No Regrets.”
One of the more interesting moments came when Rush chose to play the Dobie Gray hit, “Drift Away.” I have never cared for any version but Gray’s; he captured lightning with that recording. But Tom Rush played it in a hushed tone, with the advantage of an older man’s perspective, looking back over his shoulder at life, searching for that beat that would free his road weary soul. I now have a second favorite version of that song.