Tom Russell – World Cafe Live (Philadelphia, PA)
Tom Russell celebrated the release of his Hotwalker album by looking forward and backward. He kicked off his show with three songs from Love And Fear, the follow-up he hopes to release by year’s end. Russell noted that “All The Fine Young Ladies”, “Ash Wednesday” and “Stealing Electricity” grew out of “my last three failed relationships.” On “Stealing Electricity” which features a chorus of wordless vocals resembling Morse Code signals, he and guitarist Andrew Hardin demonstrated they could generate an electric feeling without plugging in.
The first set was compartmentalized. Two western songs (“The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” and “Tonight We Ride”) were followed by three selections from Hotwalker, Russell’s salute to his artistic influences growing up in post-World War II California. “Woodrow” and “Grapevine”, inspired by Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard, respectively, were heartfelt and warmly received. A monologue about a magical night visiting Dave Van Ronk in Greenwich Village demonstrated Russell’s skills as a storyteller and mimic.
A rousing version of “Haley’s Comet” (co-written with Dave Alvin) capped off the first set, with Russell acknowledging Bill Haley’s roots in the Philadelphia area as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. The second set took on a looser feel as Russell featured three more songs he wrote with Alvin: “Down The Rio Grande”, “Out In California” and “California Snow”. Hardin’s solo on “Rio Grande” underscored the protagonist’s resignation at the loss of a lover.
Russell announced he would accept requests from the audience: “I’ll attempt anything I can remember,” he quipped, and he was true to his word. Russell and Hardin turned in an exquisite performance of “Blue Wing” with on-the-mark harmonies for the wistful chorus. The duo also revived “Claude Dallas”, with the Idaho outlaw back in the news following his release from prison on two manslaughter convictions.
Russell’s performance was a perfect fit for World Cafe Live, which opened last fall and shares a name with the syndicated radio show. The 100-seat room is a welcome addition to the Philadelphia music scene with superb acoustics, good sightlines and a fourth-floor view of the University City area.