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Tom Russell and Max De Bernardi

Venue: Brudenell Social Club
Town: Leeds
Date: 09/12/17

To my mind, there is no better storyteller in music than Tom Russell. Earlier this year I had the great pleasure of reviewing his latest album, Folk Hotel ,for this magazine [see August Reviews section]. I found it to be an exemplary collection of songs about real people and places ,so I was delighted to discover that Tom was touring the UK this autumn.

I caught Tom’s tour in Leeds at the Brudenell Social Club ,a venue that I had heard a lot about but never actually attended.

I found the Brudenell to be everything I had hoped for, comfortable and with friendly staff and a fine selection of local real ales, not to mention delicious pies! I discovered that the club had been founded in 1913 as a Working Men’s Club and is still going strong today as a valuable community asset.

Before the show started ,I visited Tom’s merch stall/ art gallery and was very pleased to come away with an original sketch by Tom of a young Bob Dylan ,which he had drawn the previous night in Bury before going on stage!

The evening started with a short set by Tom’s alter ego “Spanish Johnny The Busking Boy” who got us in the mood with a selection of “Road Fragments” , snatches of songs by some of Tom’s favourite writers ,such as David Wiffen, Ian and Sylvia , Townes van Zandt [Pancho and Lefty], Paul Siebel [Louise] and Leonard Cohen [Tower of Song]. This led into Tom’s own vivid description of The Chelsea Hotel with its colourful complement of poets and troubadours , “Up In The Old Hotel” [ “They were the best of times up in the old hotel”].

Tom was joined on stage by the superb Italian guitarist Max De Bernardi ,from Milan ,whose adroitly fluid finger picking meshed perfectly with Tom’s own guitar.

As I mentioned, Tom is a wonderful storyteller in song and he took us on a musical journey , starting in Mexico with his song “Guadalupe”,which he recorded with Gretchen Peters. We then moved to the Mexican border with Texas for “Leaving El Paso”, which describes how he moved home from there to Santa Fe ,on the trail of the Conquistadores.

Next it was to Wales for “The Sparrow of Swansea” , a co-write with Katy Moffat, which recounts the life of Dylan Thomas and his sad demise in New York ,where he “Did not go gentle into that good night”. The following “The Last Time I Saw Hank” took us to a “cornfield in Iowa” which describes a dream Tom had about the equally tragic Hank Williams.

Tom has released two albums in 2017 ,the other one being “Play One More : The Songs of Ian and Sylvia” from which he sang his co-write with Ian Tyson “The Wolves No Longer Sing”, in which they ask “What’s happened to the music? Will the poets return one day?”.

To bring the first set to a close ,Tom and Max gave us a rousing rendition of Tom’s classic cowboy song “Tonight We Ride”.

After the break ,Tom sang his wonderfully evocative “All On A Belfast Morning” from “Folk Hotel”, which describes the time after “The pubs have all closed down” just before the first light of dawn.

One of the most poignant songs on “Folk Hotel” is the country blues-styled “Rise Again,Handsome Johnny” which tells how Tom shook hands with John F.Kennedy in 1960 at the LA Coliseum stadium ,where three years later, Tom played a football game on the very day JFK was assassinated in Dallas. Max’s guitar playing was superb ,with some wonderful Mississippi John Hurt-style fingerpicking. Max also showed his considerable guitar technique on his excellent solo rendition of Mel Tillis’s “Walk On Boy”.

My introduction to Tom Russell’s superb songwriting first came when I heard Nanci Griffith’s version of “St.Olav’s Gate” on her 1986 album “Last Of The True Believers”,so it was great to hear Tom’s own rendition tonight ,some thirty years on.

Talking of anniversaries , can it really be ten years since Tom ,with remarkable foresight wrote “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall” ,which asks the question – if Uncle Sam sends the illegals home who’s gonna build the wall? Perhaps the current President of the USA can answer that one!

Johnny Cash was a great admirer of Tom’s songs, including “Blue Wing”[which Tom performed tonight] and “Veteran’s Day” ,which Johnny recorded. Tom returned the compliment tonight with his own version of “Veteran’s Day” ,in the style of “The Man In Black”, as well as an encore medley of “Cry,Cry,Cry”, “Big River” and “I Walk The Line”.

And so ended a wonderful evening of songs, stories and humour performed by one of the great American songwriters of the past forty years. Superb.

Peter Cowley

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Rise Again, Handsome Johnny

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