To say that Tom Russell was in a buoyant mood on-stage at the legendary 100 Club would be an understatement of huge proportions. There was a definite party atmosphere – Tom’s UK label Proper Records were out in force to support him and with good reason, the new album ‘October in the Railroad Earth‘ had sailed straight in at Number One on the official UK Americana charts whilst the new single ‘That’s when the Road gets Rough‘ was, he assured us, also heading for the top, and we believe you Tom. Tom Russell describes the album as “Jack Kerouac meets Johnny Cash in Bakersfield” and he’s not wrong – as he would prove through the night with a significant amount of the two sets coming from ‘October in the Railroad Earth‘.
It was just Tom on stage, which meant that if anything there was even more of his crowd interaction banter – Tom Russell has a great repertoire of songs and he also has an unending flow of anecdote and commentary. And he reads his reviews – some poor sap had disparaged ‘The Rose of Roscrae‘ as a chaotic mess, and was lampooned for most of the first set. But at least this meant we got ‘Hair Trigger Heart‘, one of Russell’s finest mythologising songs – celebrating the myths of the West, and also the pitfalls of love – and with a singalong chorus that pulls the audience together for a moment. And it’s also great, flowing, beat poetry that cuts incisively into the human, and yes maybe particularly the male, experience. Some other guy’s review (ahem) had commented that Tom hadn’t even played ‘Gallo del Cielo‘ the last time he’d been at the 100 Club, a shortfall that he remedied with “The reduced length” version – which still required a requisite dozen or so verses during which Tom’s growl of a vocal conveyed the growing anticipation of finally achieving a long cherished dream – only to have it dashed away by the tiniest crack in a fighting cock’s beak. There’s real despair and pathos when Tom sings that “The screams of Zaragoza filled the night outside the town of Santa Clara / As the beak of del Cielo lay broken like a shell within his hand / And they say that Zaragoza screamed a curse upon the Bones of Pancho Villa / When Zorro rose up one last time and drove del Cielo through the sand.”
It wasn’t just a night of the “big hits.” Russell seemed to have travel on his mind as one song abut pounding highway miles blends into another song about pounding highway miles. ‘The Light Beyond the Coyote Fence‘ takes Russell from endless motel rooms on the Interstate, to travelling the A1 passing the Angel of the North, all the time thinking of home and pondering on a lifestyle that amounts to “A pocketful of guitar picks – that’s my trade sir” which is not so bad as it “Suits me better than a gun or a blade, mister“. There’s more anglophile references from this bastion of Americana on “When the Road gets Rough” – whilst shining up the glory of the endless miles that troubadours pay their dues on, “You don’t get paid for being on this stage /…/ you earn your pay on those eight hour drives, bad hotels, and dodgy food.” Not that Tom’s complaining: “The alternatives not so attractive ma’am, bring on the road so rough.” And there are compensations, like revisiting old friends and finding everything changed, but everything in some ways staying the same as on the gently flowing ‘T-bone Steak and Spanish Wine.’ Even the Mexicana of ‘Isadore Gonzalez’ had an English edge to it, recounting as it does the death in Bristol of the rough rider with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The party mood returned in force when Malcolm Mills – head of Proper Records – took to the stage to add drums on what turned out to be a medley of train and Johnny Cash songs, a fabulous ‘Wreck of the Old 97‘ blended with snatches of ‘Folsom Prison Blues‘ and ‘Walk the Line‘ amongst others. And after the autobiographical ‘East of Woodstock, West Of Viet Nam‘ and the ever popular ‘Bluewing‘ there was still time for a rousing and ever more appropriate ‘Who’s going to Build Your Wall‘, a song that actually earns royalties, before a beautiful closer of ‘Navajo Rug‘.
In the final analysis what can one say about Tom Russell that hasn’t been said before? He’s certainly still one of the three or four most significant songwriters we have, he’s a performer who is never less than memorable. He delights in a good time – and he’s the man who planned to say “Fuck” in a church at his next gig in Farncombe. You can never see Tom Russell too often, long may he answer the siren call to these British shores. And lastly, since we seem to be some kind of big-shot music media influencer these days, let it be noted for next time – Tom, you didn’t play ‘Red Oak Texas‘, and we love that song God-Damn-It!