Tom Russell

Of Baldies and Ballads

Tom Russell & Andrew Hardin
The W.I.S.E. Hall
Vancouver, B.C.
Friday, March 14, 1997

Review by Gary 'pigboy' Swartz
Photography by Rodney Gitzel

You didn't have to be a great detective to deduce that singer/songwriter Tom Russell and guitarist Andrew Hardin wouldn't be putting on your more typical Drop-D-reviewed show. First clue? Sudden, temporary blindness upon stepping into the auditorium. The cause? Cranial luminance. What, you ask, is cranial luminance? A phototropic effect, i.e. a bright, halo-like glow in the air, caused by the reflection of house lights from the pates of the follicly-challenged.

Tom Russell Yeah, it was a different kind of crowd, a laid-back mix of superannuated hippies, folk freaks, old friends from the days California-born Russell struggled in the seedy bars and clubs of a West Coast circuit (taking him from Vancouver to the interior, along the coast and up island), the fans that have accrued with the release of over a dozen albums since 1976 and sundry other Rogue Folk Club members. Nor was it totally atypical: a 23-year old was celebrating a birthday and contemporaries were scattered throughout the crowd.

The next clue? No stacks of amps and speakers, no FXers, no drums and no mosh pit, just two men with acoustic guitars who quietly took to the stage (after a truly forgettable opening act by... sorry, the name escapes me) and within a few bars had the 300-plus audience, including yours truly, enthralled.

Andrew Hardin In terms of material, musicianship and manner, they had a lot to enthrall with. Russell writes the kind of lyrics most songwriters would give their sexual organs to equal, certainly in quality, if not content. This evening he opened with older, well-tested songs, many of which have been recorded by better-known artists. His song about an old girlfriend and making love with her on a Navaho rug had the woman in front of me crying happy tears (decorum precludes speculation as to why), and I suspect that some of his more personal songs touched others in the same way.

The middle part of the show was obviously custom-made for a Vancouver -- or at least a Canadian -- audience. While the material wasn't quite as strong, references to places like Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Moose Jaw, Prince Rupert, Granville Street and a vague "one horse town with an Indian name" invoked a high degree of forgiveness. The latter part of the show featured his newer material, plus a few requests, and these songs tended to be less personal and highlighted his story-telling skills. "Sky Above, Mud Below," a song about two Mexican horse thieves hung using a noose braided from their own hair, was especially strong.

Hardin, for his part, is equally a master of his own instrument, and Russell wisely gave him plenty of room to flaunt his chops. The songs were punctuated by solos that spoke well of influences as diverse as bluegrass and jazz and which won appreciative applause from the audience. Would-be guitarists who complain about the need to practice would be would be well-served to watch Hardin at work.

Tom Russell & Andrew Hardin Which brings us to manner. Perhaps it was because he's almost a home town boy made good, but I've rarely seen an artist able to establish so quickly such a rapport with his audience. It didn't hurt that he dropped names like Canadian icons Ian and Sylvia, with whom he's worked and written songs; or that he expressed joy when a member of the audience confirmed that one of his old haunts, the Only Seafood Cafe, on East Hastings, is still in business; or that he joked about his reputation as the "Anti-Garth" (In Russell's cowboy songs the cowboy wife kills her drunken and cheating husband by burying her butcher knife in his belly.).

Yes, Russell came to entertain, to perform for what he described as "a good listening audience" and to leave everyone both satisfied and looking forward to more. And doubtless he will be back. In the meanwhile, one hopes that somewhere, out there, on Vancouver's mean streets, or along B.C.'s byways and backwaters, is another singer/songwriter with the same talent and vision and with whom another generation will grow old -- and perhaps go bald -- gracefully.

First published in Drop-D Magazine on March 28, 1997

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