Tom Russell

Live Review | The Ropery, Barton upon Humber | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Barton-upon-Humber stands on the south bank of the Humber Estuary, in the shadow of the southern tower of what was once the largest single-span suspension bridge in the world, that was until sixteen years on from when it was built, when slightly bigger ones began to pop up all over the place. Barton’s guest visitor tonight noted that it reminded him of a similar structure that spans the bay of San Francisco over in his home state of California; well we do like our guests to feel at home! Tonight the imposing Humber Bridge, the wide river estuary that it spans and much of the little North Lincolnshire town itself was obscured by a foggy haze, coming in off the river, making the venue difficult to find, despite the place being allegedly well signposted with a series of brown tourist signs. As usual, I left it to basic instinct, a well-tuned musical nose and the help of one or two locals, who were more than happy to point me in the right direction. It was no ordinary night after all, Tom Russell was in town. I did eventually find the Ropery Hall just at the end of a long stretch of buildings known as the Ropewalk, which tonight was little more than a dark silhouette set against the mist, where a number of people had gathered at the north end in the small foyer bar. Whilst some of the audience milled about the bar area and others took advantage of the best seats in the house, I was shown through to the green room, where I found Tom Russell standing, leaning up against a table, gently fingering his guitar, whilst his guitar player Thad Beckman went through a few old blues tunes by the likes of Mance Lipscombe and Mississippi John Hurt. I’d arranged to have a chat with Tom at some point during the evening, preferably between his two sets, but because I arrived unfashionably early, Tom’s Swiss wife Nadine (pronounced Nay-deen) led me straight through to see Tom. “Ah, Rolling Stone?” enquired Tom with a grin, reaching out his hand for me to shake. “I wish” I replied, fumbling about my bag in search of some preliminary notes. As I invited Tom to take a seat for a few moments, Nadine and Thad quietly left the room and I waited patiently for the irritating cell phone interference to stop interfering with my handy recorder. It seemed like everyone in the building was either sending or receiving texts and the interference was pretty reluctant to go away, so I decided that the content of our conversation was potentially more important than the quality and therefore I went ahead and pressed the record button. Due to the speed in which I was plunged into Tom Russell’s company, together with the fact that my notes had pretty much disappeared, my first question was less Rolling Stone and more Smash Hits. I rather lamely asked how the tour was going? “Shitty” Tom replied in his familiar southern drawl, “come on, gimme a good question!” As the cell phone interference continued to dit-dit-dit in my headphones, I chose to ignore it and settle down to business, enquiring about the new album Blood and Candle Smoke, the real reason for my being there. I asked Tom whether the germ of the album started when he co-produced the wonderful Gretchen Peters record One to the Heart, One to the Head last year, which featured his song Guadalupe, the song that contains the blood and candle smoke reference. “I’d been thinking about this record for about five years. I’d done eight or nine records for High Tone; High Tone was purchased by Shout Factory in the United States by some of the guys who used to own Rhino Records. They put out my back catalogue, they put out a double anthology called Veterans Day about a year ago and then they signed me for two more records and I told them I didn’t want to record a new record of originals until I felt I had ten or twelve great songs, from my angle, because in this day and age my perception is we are really at a low period in song writing right now and nobody’s making ten and twelve song records and if I was going to try to move up or out to a bigger audience I wanted a great record of original songs, but with a new sound as well. I told them I wanted to experiment with recording in Tuscon, Arizona with some of that Calexico sound, more of a global sound because I was writing about Africa and Mexico. So I thought about this record for the last three or four years and researched a lot of new sounds and new bands, so it was pretty well thought out”. With such a well thought out concept, Tom gets right to the point by quoting Dory Previn on the opening song of both album and tonight’s performance with the line ‘I slept through the 1960s’ from “East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam”, a song chronicling the time he spent teaching criminology in Nigeria in 1970. I was curious enough to enquire whether the songwriter felt he had himself slept through the 1960s? “Quite the opposite, I didn’t perform music until 1970. I don’t look at eras so much as a magical place where the greatest writing we’ve had in the last 50 years was being done; the fact that I was there and heard Bob Dylan early on and saw the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl and it was around when Bob Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde within 18 months. We’re really in a strange time where I feel a writer like me, whether I’m famous or semi-famous has to plough his own ground because all the scenes are dead, Americana, country to me isn’t very interesting, so you have to make something that satisfies yourself and hope that the audience digs it and I think we’ve done that with Blood and Candle Smoke”. I was intrigued at the fact that the architect of the music we now know as ‘Americana’ should feel that the genre has somehow lost its way. “Americans really invent these categories and then they pick it up over here. Categories are for weak people in the end. They don’t call Bob Dylan Americana, they don’t call Leonard Cohen Americana, they don’t call Merle Haggard… If your writing is strong enough and your presence as an artist is strong enough and fresh, like it is with those guys, you can stand outside any attempt to categorise what you do”. Tom’s point here, that we do tend to attach labels to artists who don’t fall under the ‘unique’ banner, was reiterated in slightly stronger tones later on stage, when he told his audience during the opening chords of “Criminology” that he was reaching out, away from this bloody boring Country Music and Americana that they said I invented.. what a stupid category, do they put Bob Dylan in there or Leonard Cohen? NO!” Tom was almost apologetic for mentioning the name Bob Dylan several times during our conversation and reasoned that “People may think it’s sour grapes or your embittered because you keep mentioning Dylan but, like my guitar player said, I was there, I got ears, I got a heart, I know how good that stuff is and we haven’t come anywhere near that again and I’m just glad I recognised it”. It’s not only Dylan who meets with Russell’s approval. The unlikely subject of Nina Simone crops up on the new album with a song that takes a look at how we discover or re-discover something remarkable in unlikely settings. “I knew who she was, my folks might have had a few of her records, but here’s another thing about Americans, I felt she was in this bag of an edgy R&B singer or jazz singer and I wouldn’t be that interested in her and then I heard her on a record in Mexico, I was walking around and she was singing Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and I was just transfixed. It’s a song about being in a different place, an exotic place, and truly hearing somebody you took for granted for the first time and then I realised she was a folk singer, she sang everything with a lot of attitude, so I’ve since collected a lot of her stuff. It’s always different, it always comes from almost an angry angle but not so much as a black person or a woman but just a spiritually angry person, like I say Van Morrison is a very angry person, in the same way, a very interesting form of anger. I’m pretty angry sometimes, but you work it out through your art either performing or writing”. Half way through the first set Tom introduced the second song from the album that addresses his ‘other life’ of teaching in Africa and the experience of having a gun pointed in his face. “Criminology”, which is ironically accompanied by a sweet and infectious palm wine guitar backdrop along with a jolly singalong chorus. “I got a masters degree in sociology of law, or criminology, in the late 1960s, got a gig in Africa for a year during the Biafran War and had my eyes opened. I didn’t even know where it was when I went and I was there a year in Nigeria and then went to Morocco and Spain and I loved it in a way. It was exciting and I heard a lot of great music; had a gun pointed at me a lot and just grew up. But I decided that the academic lifestyle was pretty square for me and I really wanted to go back and explore my first love which was music and become a songwriter and I think it took at least 20 years to find my own ground”. Much of the new album is autobiographical and covers some extraordinary ground, whether it be dodging bullets in Nigeria or discovering the voice of Nina Simone in Mexico, two pretty polarised experiences to say the least. The subject of love could not really be evaded and for “Finding You”, a song about his wife Nadine, Tom found a special place on the new album, but not before some careful consideration over the placing in the track listing, as Tom explained. “I conceive of this record Blood and Candle Smoke as not only my strongest album, but as a record, where you’re getting near the middle of the record and you turn it over – if it was an LP – there’s a simple little love song in between all the heavy songs, that’s kind of how I look at it”. “My wife Nadine is from Switzerland, I met her five or six years ago over there, she heard me on the radio. She’s a lot younger than me but it turned out she was very familiar with Texas music, she knew Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers and his wife and so we hit it off. I don’t write that many love songs unless I think I have something to say because it’s such an over-trod ground. It’s just a very simple love song but it has a little Tom Russell twist when I’m talking about the blessing of the animals and the shoeshine boys because I always wanted to work that into a song”. After reading recently that Tom proposed to Nadine in Venice with a ring of fried calamari, I suggested to him that romance is not quite dead yet then? “You’re damn right, you can tell that to her. Yeah, I thought that was cool. I was waiting for the right moment. I was going to propose on a mountain in El Paso but Venice was the right place. I don’t know anything about jewellery so there was the ring of calamari that was nice”. Tonight Tom was generous in delivering the new material, which also included “Mississippi River Running Backwards”, “Santa Ana Wind”, “Guadalupe” and “The Most Dangerous Woman in America”, all of which were well received by the enthusiastic Barton audience. It was however, with some of the older material that encouraged the spontaneous foot tapping, not because they were better songs, but because they were very well chosen foot-tappers from Tom’s back catalogue. “The Pugilist at 59” from his last album Love and Fear, brought the first set to an end. Tom has chronicled his life pretty well in his songs over the years and has produced a prolific output since his first record in the mid-1970s. Some of the most memorable works have been presented in what he likes to describe as his ‘thematic trilogy’, two parts of which have already surfaced on The Man From God Knows Where and Hotwalker. Tonight Tom and Thad delighted the audience with an 18 minute monologue about Dave Van Ronk, interspersed with several blues licks in the styles of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson and culminating in “Tonight We Ride”, recalling the montage style of Hotwalker, one of Tom’s most engaging records to date. I was eager to know when and in what format the third part was likely to surface. “I did The Man From God Knows Where eight or nine years ago, I can’t remember, in Norway, a folk opera about my ancestors coming from Ireland and Norway. It’s probably my most widely acclaimed record and then later on I did Hotwalker five or six years ago, which is sort of a collage of my childhood growing up in Los Angeles reading Beat poetry, listening to Bakersfield country music – we were listening to Buck Owens today and it’s still fresh and cutting edge – and there’s a lot of those voices on that record, Kerouac, Bukowski, Edward Abbey. Those were the two thematic records and I’m working on a film now about the West through my eyes and a woman I know who ranches alone. That’ll have a soundtrack that will be the third part of this trilogy as I call it”. Whether or not Tom wants to shake off the mantle of inventor of Americana or any other label we might want to attach to him, folk singer, country singer etc. what cannot be disputed is the fact that he embraces the plight of the common man and has become a voice for the down trodden, whether that be the neglected Native American or those affected by the ongoing ‘Mexican problem’ with emphasis on the countries ludicrous immigration policy. “I think the plight of the Native American is the thing closest home to me. I live in the West and the first few songs I wrote were about the Native Americans, very much influenced – I’d say on stage some nights – by the songs of Peter La Farge who wrote “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and some of the things Johnny Cash did. We live in a country that has a hundred Holocaust museums and yet doesn’t have that many museums or doesn’t respect the people we holocausted really, the Native American tribes. I find that rather odd because they don’t have as good a press agent or something”. The song “Crosses of San Carlos” investigates how America conveniently forgets the mortality rate amongst Native Americans who escape the confines of the reservations they set up for them. I asked Tom whether he thought America in general suffered any guilt or shame for the plight of the Native American? “Yeah, well that and the fact that we’ve forgotten about them, we’ve put them on reservations, that’s what the song’s about, where they’re not supposed to have alcohol. They’re so troubled anyway a lot of them go off the reservation to drink and die out on the road, that’s basically what the song is about. Yeah, there’s a lot of guilt and shame and twisted American history the same way with the Mexicans. Americans are very chauvinistic, the culture changes every five years, they don’t know much about the Canadians or the Mexicans or anything”. On the ongoing Mexican border problem, Tom honoured a request from the audience for his topical “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall”, which addresses the hypocrisy of the countries’ immigration policy. “It was controversial, I still do it occasionally and I did it on the David Letterman show. It’s about the last administration trying to build a wall along the border and using, in a lot of cases, illegal Mexican workers to build a wall to keep them out. So that’s the kind of tongue in cheek funny bit about it, it’s not like a very profound song”. One treat during the concert tonight was the unveiling of a new song, a work in progress, which looks at another problem much closer home, Tom’s home that is, in El Paso, New Mexico. “I like to occasionally do a topical song and I’m working on a song about Juarez, which is now the most dangerous city in the world really, the murder capitol that’s right across the river from us in El Paso. It’s about the drug wars and America sending the guns that way and them sending the drugs this way and we’re kind of financing this murder spree”. I wondered whether this was more prevalent to him as a resident of El Paso, being in such close proximity to Juarez? “It’s relevant to the whole world. You can read it in the International Herald Tribune and see it on CNN. You hear more about the Juarez situation over here than you do living in El Paso because they’re kind of in denial. El Paso itself is a very safe city, that’s the conundrum, and right across the river is the most dangerous city and El Paso papers or news doesn’t tend to dwell on that. You get over here though and you’ve got guys writing for the London Observer, who I know, people like Ed Vulliamy who are writing books on the war situation”. Tom Russell set out with a conscious decision to reach out to a wider audience with this exciting and considered album, which contains twelve memorable songs, some of which we heard tonight, that just might constitute a career best. I wondered whether this current tour has so far confirmed this for Tom. “I feel the audience growing. I always feel good whether I’m playing for a hundred people or two thousand or whatever it was last night (Celtic Connections), that some people and especially a lot of young people are coming to the shows now because they do want to hear good writing. You do have to go beyond the media because the media is kind of getting squished down; they’re either looking for the new 16 year-old girl or they’re gonna do something like the hundred best albums of all time. They’re desperate for something, so for a guy like me at my age, to try to float a great record out at this point in my career, it’s very very hard to get by that guy at the BBC in London who goes ‘I know what Tom Russell does, who doesn’t know what Tom Russell does?’ So that’s really the war right now but it’s going good, this record has outsold anything else I’ve done”. Finishing off with “Walking on the Moon”, a song co-written by Katy Moffatt, Tom rounded off a perfectly good night of great songs, new and not so new, unplugging his guitar and leaving the stage to walk amongst his audience, whilst singing the last refrain of Townes Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ on Raton” and leaving the room at the back to some loud and appreciative applause.