The London stop on Tom Paxton’s regular UK tours has for some time been the elegant Cadogan Hall, with the double benefit of offering quite sumptuous seating – this is no spit and sawdust venue – and as befits the home of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, an excellent acoustic. Tom Paxton attracts a more mature audience, even the odd fresh-faced student type in the audience couldn’t do a lot to bring down the average age. If not quite full, then there was a good sized crowd ensconced in the Cadogan Hall when The DonJuans (Don Henry and Jon Vezner) took to the stage to act as the warm-up before becoming the back-up band when Tom joined them for the rest of the evening.
Running through a quartet of their numbers The Donjauns, Grammy winners by the way, covered love, the joys of graveyards, the taking to the road troubadour style with no Plan B and a love trumps dementia true-story, each delivered with a gentle folk accompaniment on various guitars and keyboards.
When Paxton hit the stage he admitted that here was going to be a problem tonight: we would not, he ruefully jested, be hearing that “glorious Bel Canto” vocal on this occasion. Tom had been hit by a cold and a sore throat a few days earlier and now he acknowledged he was gruffer than Tom Waits. So he was expecting us, the audience, to do our bit to help out with the singing and to be understanding if he told a few more stories than his usual.
He started off with his anti-gun song, ‘What if, no matter‘, which begs the question as to whether reducing gun access might just stop heated arguments or political disaffection from ending in murder. He just may have a point. Then there was an easing into one of his trademark sing-a-longs, ‘I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound‘ harking back to his first studio release, the LP ‘Ramblin’ Boy‘. It is, appropriately enough, one of his “rambling around this old land” songs, sitting itself in a folk tradition carried on from Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl ballads. This could have been the signal for an evening of nostalgic folk – but Tom had other ideas bringing out one of his finest political songs of recent years ‘If the poor don’t matter‘. It is given context by his reflection that in his country wealthy right-wing and supposedly Christian politicians seem to see no contradiction between their own near-boundless wealth and their policies such as cutting a free school meals program ensuring that some of the poorest citizens of a rich nation can drop from one to no guaranteed meal per day. As he sings “If the kids are hungry but there’s nothing to eat / If the baby has a fever but there is no heat / If they’re living in the Chevy as the world walks by / If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I“. It’s always a poignant song – but somehow in this plush venue in the heart of one of London’s wealthiest boroughs then “push ’em back / sweep ’em out / anything to keep them out” and with Tom’s rough edged vocal it takes on an extra layer of truth-telling.
There were stories and songs reflecting across Paxton’s life – how Paul Simon shared a flat with Tom and his wife when they were both discovering the great benefits of the British Folk Boom of the Sixties – going from poor-paying coffee house gigs to the UK folk circuit where it was “Saturday night every night.” A real eye-opener. ‘Bottle of wine‘ was another big sing-a-long from that time with Don Henry adding some nice acoustic slide guitar, whilst ‘Did you hear John Hurt‘ captured the awe of seeing one of the great bluesmen – who most people thought already dead – being rediscovered at the start of the Sixties and near-worshipped by a new generation of musicians.
There were also plenty of Paxton’s – and his band mates – more whimsical tendencies on display. The DonJuans contributed ‘U-Kan-Play‘, which not surprisingly was played on ukuleles and is the very definition of the throw-away song or as they put it, “The only song you’ll ever hear that took less time to write than it does to sing“. Not to be outdone Paxton led off on his own self-deprecating tune ‘All my stalkers use walkers‘, which may just have been alluding to the nature of his fan base. It was also given as his attempt at a country song – since he was writing it with the Nashville based DonJuans – and featured the immortal put-down of the career of an ageing musician “It seems the glitz and glamour never ends.” This lack of seriousness was counterbalanced by some legendary songs – a ragged but still lovely ‘Last thing on my mind‘ and a rousing ‘Ramblin’ Boy‘.
This evening proved beyond doubt that Paston is a trouper – Jon Vezner’s comment, “What about this guy? I’d be at home snivelling in bed,” caught it pretty well. In his eighty-first year Tom Paxton isn’t slowing down and giving up – he’s back out of retirement it seems for good, mainly because retirement was driving him mad. So there’s more music to come, and of course more new songs and new albums. Tom Paxton – lifelong songsmith.
All photographs by Jonathan Aird