Tom Russell at Gateshead Old Town Hall
Although it is actually two full years, it doesn’t seem 5 minutes since Tom Russell was playing this exact same venue to about 100 people yet tonight was a complete sell-out which bode well for Roots music in the North East.
With no support act Russell ambled on stage on stage looking very dapper, dressed in all in black with a snugly scarf and a Fedora at a jaunty angle and then baffled the crowd with a rendition of Dylan’s Just Like a Woman. Afterwards he explained that Dylan’s influence on his writing runs right through his latest album MESABI before recounting the day he met the great man when Russell was a teenager, and Dylan asked him for ‘directions to the nearest liquor store!’
Tom then evoked a Dick Van Dyke ‘cockernee’ accent to introduce Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike and Farewell Neverland as both songs are both based on his memories of watching Disney films as a child and ‘that’s how English people spoke (speak?)’ which caused the first outbreak of giggling.
Russell’s songs and stage demeanour can be quite serious and deadpan but, just like Leonard Cohen there is always a wicked dry sense of humour hidden in the shadows if you care to look for it. Tonight he charmed us with a tale of a conversation he’d had earlier in the day with a street urchin (the ‘cockernee’ accent was reactivated) and he’d given the child and his mother free tickets, but they had to remain out of sight; which meant a running gag with Russell ‘pretending to be the urchin commenting on the show’ from behind the curtain. Perhaps you had to be there.
As he says himself “Russell appears to have a split personality’ but I guess that’s what makes geniuses stand out from the crowd.
The backbone of tonight’s material was predominantly Tex-Mex flavoured Country-Folk as usual; but that simple description does the songs a great disservice as they are all very clever with twists and turns and subjects varying from Elizabeth Taylors torrid love life to the Biafran war, illegal gambling in Mexico and tales of cowboys on the Western plain and each one being both believable and beautiful in its own right.
With that in mind the highlight of the evening for me was a shouted request from the back of the Old Town Hall. I wasn’t previously aware of Blue Wing before tonight but hunted it down the following morning; as Thad Beckman’s dazzling guitar breaks and Russell and Dave Alvin’s clever lyrics sent shivers down my spine.
This was followed with another one of his older songs, Muhammad Ali which was treat as a Birthday song for the great man’s 70th Birthday and immediately followed by the more recent The Pugilist at 59 which was quite staggering tonight.
What else can I say? Tom Russell appears to be finally getting the sales and glowing reviews that his fine body of work has deserved for many years.