Since the late '70s, Russell, 58, made it a point to follow in the footsteps of his musical heroes to become a troubadour in the best sense of the word. His throwback singer-songwriter style fits well with the dimly lit folk club aesthetic. A tell-it-like-it-is attitude and warm personality is both refreshing and endearing in a modern politically correct world.
Utilizing this strength, his lyrical style infuses pop culture references from the last half-century with a film noir sensibility that conjures images of the dark underbelly of American life. On his new album Russell places songs about long forgotten Hollywood actors who died broke next to tales of drunks and junkies and dying Mexican towns.
With his friend Thad Beckman in tow to support him on lead guitar and backing vocals, Russell, needing no opening act, slung his black acoustic guitar over his shoulder a few minutes after 8 p.m. -- ready to play for the mostly 45-60 year old Off Broadway audience. Dressed in all black, the singer sported a scarf not for decoration, but draped around his neck to keep his voice warm. Clearly in good spirits, Russell jabbed with Beckman, audience members and bartenders in equal measure.
Russell began the set with the story of a trip he took to the Northern Minnesota towns of Duluth and Hibbing where the rock poet laureate Bob Dylan was respectively born and raised. Describing these places as "movie sets unchanged since 1948," he set an effective mood for the audience. An excerpt of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" allowed a natural transition to the upbeat title track to his new album "Mesabi," a reflection of his younger days listening to Dylan inspired by his trip. While the arrangement here seemed sparse compared to the album version -- filled with a full band and horns via Calexico -- the energy was no less exuberant.
The opening set had a heavy dose of material from the new album. Russell delivered facts and anecdotes about the songs without giving too much away. His stage banter gave the audience fodder for future thought as they go home and research the details of the characters and events that inspire his writing.
New songs "Sterling Hayden" and "The Lonesome Death Of Ukulele Ike" described Hollywood actors whose fortunes dried up succumbing to their personal demons. On the latter number, Russell asked the audience to imagine Beckman's guitar as a ukulele ending with a quip, "Roll over Eddie Vedder," a lighthearted jab towards this year's solo album by the Pearl Jam singer.
Commenting on the new arrangement at Off Broadway, Russell chided, "Either the bar is getting shorter or I'm... ." trailing off. Picking up his thought he continued, "It used to be the longest bar in the world." Asking the owner rhetorically "How much you get for it?" When a beer bottle clanked in the trash can later he scolded with "Are you going to throw those all night?" in a shot to the bartenders.
Moving from Hollywood to Southwestern Texas, Russell shifted the songs towards Juarez, Mexico. Relating his familiarity with this border town battered in recent years by the Mexican drug wars, Russell advised he and his wife make their home in El Paso. A perfect fit to segue into another new song; he introduced "And God Created Border Towns," a co-composition with Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet). This haunting tale includes details of the daily struggles in Juarez. Not one to leave a good theme behind, he followed with the beautiful "Goodnight, Juarez," an ode to the dying city.
After the intermission, the crowd appreciated Russell's nod toward local history as he played "The Most Dangerous Woman in America," a commentary on union organizer Mother Jones and the troubles of miners, from his 2009 album "Blood and Candle Smoke." Upon asking requests late in the second set, the audience naturally yelled their favorites toward the stage many dating back several years. Russell interrupted them joking, "You people have to buy some of the new records." However, he and Beckman did oblige with a duet of "Blue Wing" from his 1989 release "Poor Man's Dream."
Finally, he asked Post-Dispatch writer Barry Gilbert for his choice and agreed with the choice of the up-tempo blues "Halley's Comet" to end the main set appropriately. Out of nowhere, Beatle Bob strolled through the front door and Russell took the opportunity to swipe with more venom than his previous barbs. He called out the local music lover with a serious statement in a joking tone, "Don't steal any of my CD's, Bob. I sent you a bunch of records in the mail," thereby further exposing Bob's longtime ruse as a music critic/radio host to gain access to shows and get free merchandise. He chided Beatle Bob's late arrival to the show saying, "Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to come out to Off Broadway to hear some roots music." By the song's end Russell, brought the house back together getting the audience, bartenders and the late arriving Beatle Bob to all sing along.
Coming back out for an encore Russell ended the show with "Navajo Rug." As the song ended he unplugged the guitar slowly strolling off stage into the seated audience. The lights lowered and he sang the closing chorus and bid everyone goodnight. By nights end, we were just where he wanted us -- in the palm of his hands.
Tom Russell setlist:
Don't Think Twice, It's Alright (Excerpt) (Bob Dylan)
When You Wish Upon a Star (Excerpt)
Farewell Never, Never Land
The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike
Furious Love (For Liz)
And God Created Border Towns
The Road to Nowhere
The Most Dangerous Woman in America
Mississippi River Runnin' Backwards
Heart Within a Heart
Blue Wing (duet with Thad Beckman)
Roll the Credits, Johnny
Sporting Life Blues (Excerpt)