Tom Russell and Thad Beckman – York, UK – Jan. 17, 2010
Tom Russell and Ways of Escape
by Maria Gaia Janssens
I had planned to buy Blood and Candle Smoke when it first came out, but hadn’t come around to it then. When I saw it ended at #4 in the No Depression’s Best of 2009 list, I figured it was about time to go out and buy the record. On my way back from the record store I stopped by at a little second-hand bookstore. Not looking for anything in particular, I for some reason found myself looking in the biography section. Here I found, and then bought, the autobiography Graham Greene wrote in 1980: Ways of Escape.
Back home, not knowing which newly acquired treasure to dive into first, I put on Blood and Candle Smoke and started reading Graham Greene simultaneously. A strange sensation of things coming together occurred when Graham Greene was mentioned on the first song of the record. A sensation that was intensified when I looked on the internet and found out that Tom Russell was playing in York, the English town in which I live, on the 17th of January.
Now there is a lot to say in favour of York- it is a beautiful and friendly little city full of history- but one thing York doesn’t have is a lively music scene. It is not very often that the musicians I like play here. And when they do, they don’t always draw a big crowd. When Rod Picott and Amanda Shires played here last year, for example, there weren’t more than fifteen people there. But fortunately things were different for a legend like Tom Russell. When I came to The Duchess half an hour before he was going to be on, nearly all the seats were already taken by middle–aged men. Who quite amusingly were all made to where wristbands with palm trees and monkeys holding bananas above their heads printed on it by The Duchess.
Opening with “East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam” Tom Russell had everyone captured straight away. Before playing the second song, “Nina Simone”, he made a second reference to Graham Greene. He compared his situation in Mexico at the time the song is set with Graham Greene’s travels. And just like Graham Greene had done before, Tom Russell took me to many places: from Nigeria to Arizona, from Mexico to British Columbia, from Dave Van Ronk’s couch to a Bed & Breakfast in Hull and back, walking beside me all the way.
With the help of the amazing Thad Beckman on lead guitar, the music was intense. But any time it felt like it was going to be too much to take Tom would tell a funny story, play ‘a cowboy song’ or insert one of his characteristic little screams in a song.
Before the interval he played nearly all of the songs from Blood and Candle Smoke, and promised to play older work in his second set. Though looking forward to hearing him play his older songs I couldn’t help to feel a bit disappointed that he hadn’t played “Santa Ana Wind” and “Crosses of San Carlos”, two of my favourites from Blood and Candle Smoke. But then he opened his second set with these.
After he had run out of Blood and Candle Smoke songs he gave a chilling version of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, followed by “Blue Wing”. Though, for York standards, there was a rather large audience, it was completely quiet while he played. The best word to describe the mood was given by Tom Russell himself a few moments later in describing what it was like seeing Ramblin’ Jack Elliot play in the Ash Grove: “transcendent”.
After “Blue Wing” he told some stories and let Thad Beckman do imitations of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Doc Watson, Dave Van Ronk, and the like. At the final part of the show, he took us to the US/Mexican border and let us sing along with “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall”, then made us cross the border with “Gallo Del Cielo”, and gave us “Touch of Evil” as an encore, in answer to a request.
Back home I read the final chapter and the epilogue of Graham Greene’s book, and couldn’t help thinking that if Graham Greene had been here tonight he would have paid more attention to music as a way of escape.