It doesn’t pay to be late to a Tom Russell gig, you might miss the opening act who takes the stage to do a little “guess that tune” as he plays snippets of road songs. A little bit of Pancho and Lefty, a little snippet of Guy Clark, it could be anything, even Leonard Cohen. Since he’s a gruff voiced seventy year old American in a cowboy hat with an easy line of patter then you really don’t want to miss the support. Having warmed up both the audience and his own voice it was time for Tom Russell to emerge from his carefully crafted disguise as himself – a gruff voiced seventy year old American in a cowboy hat, with an easy line of patter. This would be, we were assured, a great gig, in fact the best, the best. Unlike someone else who also likes to make grandiose claims Tom Russell actually delivers. His word is his bond, god damn it.
It can have hardly passed by anyone’s attention that Tom Russell has released two albums this year, one predominantly covers as a tribute to Ian & Sylvia – that’s Play One More – whilst Folk Hotel weaves together stories of traditional and country music with the assassination of John Kennedy, the need to do something for a nation being looted by chancers and snake-oil hawkers, and dreams of musical heroes and family members gone and missed like hell. In other words, pretty typical Tom Russell fare, the kind of typical fare that makes most of the rest out there look like the work of amateurs. There are several songs from Folk Hotel over the two sets that made up this evening: Leaving El Paso is about Tom’s own house move from El paso to Santa Fe when the influence of the drug trade made his longtime home untenable. No-one’s house move has ever been as memorable. No song on Kennedy’s assassination has ever had as sprightly a blues accompaniment as Rise Again Handsome Johnny, which is provided by Tom’s musical partner in crime Max De Bernardi, and the optimism of a golden era that insisted on dedication to a better world is implicitly contrasted to our era on the heartfelt chorus “Rise again Handsome Johnny, rise again / this country could use a few good men”.
Folk Hotel has so many good songs that there was only time for one – Hair Trigger Heart – from the universally acclaimed Rose of Roscrae: although when introducing this song Tom Russell did gleefully concentrate on the one negative review of this “chaotic mess of an album”. No-one does song introductions like Tom Russell, no-one gets the audience roaring with laughter, no-one engages more with the people who have braved the front row. Hecklers, talkers and loud bar staff get dealt with in the same good humour. He’s not just good at the banter – in perfect Dick Van Dyke cockney – he’s great at the songs. Tonight We Ride! is as strident as ever, it’s a sing-along, it’s the mythologising of the West, it’s an out of control bare back ride. It’s a great song – but there are better. It’s stunning how this stage that The Kinks and The Stones strode can bear a song as emotional harrowing as Guadalupe – this is not a song, it’s poetry. And poetry can hit home and be personal even in a crowded 100 Club.
This is not a setlist review – Blue Wing and the accompanying Johnny Cash medley was a pure joy, The Last time I saw Hank is a new classic, the endless touring ballad The Light Beyond the Coyote Fence has a dreamlike simplicity and is a serene nod to the passing of one generation who lived the troubadour lifestyle. The youngest member of the audience did us all a favour requesting the unworked-up but gamely attempted When Sinatra played Juarez. California Snow and Stealing Electricity both reflect on the fates of the poor – and the fates of those who tangle with love. Let me tell you the long and short of it: every song was a beauty, the first set was unsurrpassable – unless you hung around for set two – and Who’s Going to build your Wall is perfect precognition, written ten years before it was truly needed. He probably wouldn’t thank anyone for saying so but Tom Russell is a living legend, he sings of his heroes and he’s there alongside them. It’s not self-aggrandisement as such, more the story of American music, certainly Americana music, it’s the stitch of history and the dangers of staying sober or of falling in love. And here’s an odd thing – it wasn’t until a full three hours after strolling down Oxford Street a-buzz from the experience that I realised we hadn’t had Gallo del Cielo. That’s how good Tom Russell is – he can leave out probably his best known song and it’s absence isn’t obvious.