Tom Russell – The Grand Emporium (Kansas City, Missouri)
It was Friday the 13th — what better time to hear Tom Russell’s tales of hard-luck drifters, hard-bitten souls and hard-drinking romantics?
Russell and guitar-whiz accompanist Andrew Hardin performed two acoustic sets at Kansas City roots-rock haven The Grand Emporium in what was billed as a record-release party for Russell’s The Rose of the San Joaquin on Hightone Records. The duo offered up an engrossing mix of new material, old favorites and a few lesser-known jewels from the Russell repertoire.
Russell opened with one of his earliest compositions, “Crop Duster,” and then eased his way through memorable cuts from his excellent 1992 Rounder/Philo release Poor Man’s Dream and other recordings before finally dipping into the new album.
Selections from The Rose of the San Joaquin offered Hardin choice opportunities to show off some Southwestern-style flourishes. Russell spotlighted his newest songwriting collaborations with Ian Tyson on the title song, Dave Alvin on “Out in California” (“Sittin’ here drinkin’ in the last bar on earth/Out in California she’s takin’ off her tight red skirt”) and Peter Case on “What Do You Want?” (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they’ll possess the earth/But the day I hand the world to you, you’ll ask me what it’s worth”).
Other highlights included “The Eyes of Roberto Duran” (a Russell-penned number that appears on Chris Gaffney’s recent album Loser’s Paradise) and a honky-tonkin’ vocal turn by Hardin — who soon will release a solo album — on “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin” (a Jerry Irby song popularized by both Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman).
The evening’s most enjoyable moment came when Russell coaxed Kansas City-area resident Iris DeMent from her hideout in the rear of the room to offer backup vocals on Merle Haggard’s “Tulare Dust/They’re Tearin’ the Labor Camps Down”.
The show closed with another Poor Man’s Dream highlight, “Gallo Del Cielo”, which is covered by Joe Ely on his new disc Letters to Laredo; “Haley’s Comet”, about Bill Haley’s death in obscurity; and, for an encore, “Road to Bayamon”, inspired by a visit to Puerto Rico.