Russell keeps audience spellbound
Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., April 14, 1999
By Joel Bernstein
SOMERVILLE, MA - In the years he was based in New York City, Tom Russell performed in the Boston area so often that some people probably thought he was a local artist. Now that he's based in Texas, Russell doesn't come around very much, but Wednesday's show demonstrated that this great songwriter still has a lot of devoted fans in town.
Russell was clad in a dark suit and playing a black guitar. That was appropriate because he is in some ways reminiscent of the original Man in Black, Johnny Cash.
Both are great storytellers in song or in narration. There is some vocal similarity as well, although not as striking now as it once was. And accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar and, more importantly, that of longtime accompanist Andrew Hardin, Russell creates a sound akin to that of Cash on his stark "American Recordings" album.
After opening with one old song, "Angel of Lyon," Russell proceeded to more-or-less recreate his remarkable new album "The Man From God Knows Where."
The 60-plus minute album was condensed to about 45 minutes, and Russell himself sang parts that are done by such others as Dave Van Ronk and Dolores Keane on the disc. The album is a multi-generational history of Russell's family beginning in Norway and Ireland and ending in the U.S. Russell provided narrative to give the songs their context within the story, but many of them, particularly the closing "Love Abides," can stand well on their own.
For his second set, Russell provided somethings old (including his oft-recorded classic "Gallo del Cielo"), something new ("Down The Rio Grande," recently written with Dave Alvin), something borrowed (local R&B singer Barrence Whitfield came on-stage to perform two of the songs he and Russell recorded together several years ago), and something blue ("Blue Wing," from his album "Poor Man's Dream.") Hardin also sang one number, which definitely answered anyone's question as to why he usually just plays guitar.
It was a smooth and relaxed performance by the veteran artist. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the show was the audience. From beginning to end, there was nary a word spoken by anyone while Russell was on-stage, not even by the folks at the back of the club, where on many nights the drinkers seem unaware that anyone is even performing. It takes something special to keep an entire audience's undivided attention for a whole night, but Russell has it.