Concert review: Leon Redbone charms away the blues at the Old Rock House, Tuesday, January 25
The Old Rock House was already standing room only when I arrived on Tuesday night. Waitresses milled through low light into a host of well-dressed, mostly middle-aged folks sitting packed together at candlelit tables before the stage. And then Leon Redbone sidled with a cane up the stage steps like a ghost. Redbone’s piano man played him onstage with Anton Karas’s zither theme from The Third Man. By the time the man sat down on his stool with archaic guitar, gambler’s sunglasses, mustache and old hat all intact, he was all real.
Redbone almost immediately raised his glass of dark cocktail to the audience in keeping with his tradition of stage-drunkenness, and softened us up with some drawled wisecracks. He fiddled with his guitar throughout his musings and jokes. When he broke into song, guitar and voice, it was as if Gene Austin or Fats Waller had whispered in his ear, “C’mon, Leon.” And the songs were gorgeous. If he’s lost some of his pyrotechnical blues playing abilities over the last 4-or-so decades (which he barely has), his voice has grown richer, more textured, manifold and distinct: his rich crooning of “My Blue Heaven” warmed and enchanted the room; his drunken and debonair “Ain’t Misbehavin’” perfectly emulated some kind of wallowing brass, his voice like a well-greased hasp on some heavy, ancient door; and his near-heartbreaking ballad, “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven,” was delivered through a wry grin.
Which is likely the face he’ll wear to the end. Redbone asked his audience to slow down, come in from the gloom and flash and hurry of the world for an hour, take things at his pace. Not all the jokes are funny, but who cares? They may have not even been funny in the 1920s, but that’s why he tells them. He didn’t even feel the need to play the whole time, even sitting back and listening to his piano man play a couple of rollicking stride pieces, whistling, spidering his fingers, stomping. And though many of his songs and jokes carried a serious sentiment of aging and death, (“Will someone come up and finish this evening for me?”), he seemed resilient, a glad and goofy host of this steady tour through prewar blues, postwar Vienna and Italian opera. Everything he sang and played was rich and cared for and steeped in tradition beyond any shtick. Why would anyone question it? It sounds too good.
He ended the night with a yarn about a young Italian castrato, whom he then mimicked, and then somehow glided right into “Shine on Harvest Moon.” He bowed to the applause and catcalls and quietly exited the building through the side door. I watched him through the window, politely eluding autograph-opportunities, then disappearing around the rear of the building, probably descending into some speakeasy where Fats Waller sat dealing a hand.