Live Review: Tom Russell, The 100 Club London – 29th June 2023

And so once more to the 100 Club, the habitual stopover of Tom Russell in London for an evening of..well, who really knows what? Unlike many musicians, Tom Russell didn’t spend the pandemic recording new albums, so the bill of fare could be from any of his dozens of albums and guest appearances – or, as his alter ego the support singer, a quick ramble through the well-known or the obscure as a warm-up, with ‘Pancho and Lefty‘ a particularly popular choice. Russell looked a little older and lighter, and was helped up onto and off the stage – but then the pugilist is seventy-six now, and to quote Henry Jones Jr “it’s not the years it’s the mileage.” It was Tom Russell completely solo for this gig, just a man, a guitar and some of the finest songs written in the last few decades. There was a lot of ‘Blood and Candlesmoke‘, but who could argue with a set list that included ‘Guadalupe‘, ‘Nina Simone‘ and ‘East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam‘ as well as ‘Blue Wing‘, ‘When Sinatra Played Juarez‘, ‘Tonight We Ride‘, ‘Hair Trigger Heart‘ and more? Turns out that Tom Russell was doing a couple of greatest hits sets, with a mixed-in Johnny Cash tribute in the form of a medley of the big songs and a full rendition of ‘Wreck of old 97‘.

Photo: J. Aird

If there was a fault with the gig, and let’s face it any sentence that starts with “if there was” is, in a bad-mannered way, going to darn well point out a fault – well if there was a fault it was that Tom Russell doesn’t need to tip his hat quite so often to Johnny Cash.  Great singer that he may have been, Johnny didn’t write ‘Stealing Electricity‘ (dismissed on this evening as “just da-da-da-da-da-da-da“) or ‘Who’s going to build your wall?‘ (dismissed on this evening with a wry comment that it had earned Russell a lot of hate mail, none of it from London). And yes we did get ‘Gallo Del Cielo‘, although his claim, “this is the happy version – the rooster lives” was a lie, a beat-poet appreciation with ‘October in the Rail Road Earth‘ and a history lesson with ‘Isadore Gonzalez’ as well as a beautiful singing-along encore of ‘Navajo Rug‘. But we could have also had ‘The Last Time I Saw Hank‘ or ‘The Light Beyond the Coyote Fence‘.  Or ‘Alkali.’  Or….well you get the idea.

It’s only when someone has so many great songs that there are such true classics that can’t be fitted in – but, after a faltering start trying to find the first line, ‘California Snow‘ did make the cut – a sensitive reflection on migrants crossing the border to find a harsh welcome, either from the Border Guard or the harsh weather both of which can see the dreamers finding themselves sent back into Mexico again. That’s what makes Russell great – he can be the tough guy on ‘Tonight We Ride‘ and then he can be the sensitive lawman contemplating the ghosts he sees on the border and then again the reluctant pilgrim looking for a benediction in ‘Guadalupe‘.  Perhaps no song better defines his greatness though than ‘Gallo Del Cielo‘ – a narrative telling of a man who steals a prime fighting rooster and tries to win enough money in cock fights to “buy back the land that Villa stole from father long ago.”  And yet there are layers of pathos in an almost noble journey from desperation to escape poverty that, over time, gets perverted by greed until “Carlos Zaragoza fears the tiny crack that runs across his rooster’s beak and he fears that he has lost the fifty thousand dollars that are riding on the fight.”  Final defeat leads to a self-imposed exile from home – a terrible beginning eventually made worse.  It’s a song for the ages.

A final reflection at the end of the night is that if anyone deserves to get sent to the front of that queue waiting to stand in their cowboy boots on Dylan’s coffee table then it’s Tom Russell.  The great Tom Russell.

About Jonathan Aird 2748 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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Andy Trott

A fair review Jonathan, wish i was there! Tom cancelled a couple of shows prior London to ill health, Cardiff which i had tickets for, one of them. Was there any mention of a new dble. album Tom was working on during the pandemic? Hope whatever ailed him he recovers from. As you said, the great Tom Russell.

Harry Scott

Going by the photograph, you must have been standing right next to me ( I was the one who requested Stealing Electricity). Great songwriter though he is, I think Tom is showing more signs of wear every time I see him. And as your review suggests, he may not understand the regard that the songs are given by his audience. Both my friend who was there, and I regard Stealing Electricity and Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall as the basic blocks that any TR show should be built on. Sure, Gallo and Navajo Rug are great songs, but a step below those two. A great evening for nostalgia, but it could have been so much more.

Mark

I couldn’t think of two more deserving songs to make Tom’s set list than those two.

Neil Coupland

The problem is Tom has 50 years of songwriting under his belt, hundreds of songs, and probably someone out there who really wants to hear a specific choice of maybe half of these – I heard shout outs at the 100 Club for “Alkali”, for “Bucking Horse Moon”, for “Sparrow of Swansea”, for “The Kid from Spavinaw”, for “Manzanar”, and for “Down the Rio Grande”, all excellent choices but probably not songs at the forefront of Tom’s mind. A lady in the audience had it right though – “sing everything!”. I don’t think Tom actually dismissed either “Stealing Electricity” or “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall”. For SE “all you’ve got to do is da da da da” was simply him saying something while he turned the song over in his mind and moved on – – as he said   “I haven’t done that one in a while”. Fast forward 48 hours and he performed both songs for the crowd at the Gate to Southwell Festival (he recited “Wall” rather than sang it which was an unique experience – I love to hear Tom recite stuff, and much of what he does is poetic and responds well). SE isn’t my favourite track from what might well be my favourite TR album (along with all the others!) but Tom clearly loves the interaction with the audience.
So it was a fabulous show and a real joy to be seeing Tom again after all the time since his last visit to these shores. As for “Pugilist” and “Stolen Children” you may need a time machine – I’d suggest Hanbury Ballroom in Brighton 2005 – Tom and Andy in full flow, covers of Jimmy Cliff, Emmylou, Warren Zevon, a bunch of Love & Fear songs and a whole lot of old favourites. No songs about chickens though! Me, I’m still waiting and hoping that one day I’ll hear him play Annette, Purgatory Road, Hills of Old Juarez, Sunny’s Diner, and most of all I’d so love to hear him perform Chinatown in the Rain. And, though I’m waiting and hoping, I have no expectation that this will ever happen!  When it comes down to it though I’ll happily settle for whatever Tom elects to play – in my reckoning the man is a genius and genius gets to make whatever rules they like!