Texas songwriter Tom Russell may be the epitome of the traveling troubadour, a man who takes his songs anywhere he can, performing for audiences of varying sizes and dispositions. This night was an unusually small show, a house concert for about forty people ranging from diehard fans to the casually interested. By the end of the evening, Russell had won over the newcomers and affirmed the interest of the longtime supporters.
House concerts by their very nature are intimate affairs, with the performers up close and personal and truly “unplugged”, playing without benefit of microphones or amplification. This particular house, in a historic district of the city near the state university, has the advantage of a large living room that can accommodate a number of folding chairs within the arc of antique sofas against the outer walls. Russell himself made reference to the surroundings at one point in the show in an aside to the promoter who he chided for, “having all this great art, yet there’s a Taco Bell Chihuahua sitting in the corner”. It was a humorous moment, one of several in a show that was marked by Russell’s self-effacing manner and willingness to poke fun at everyone else involved, too.
In a cozy space like this, Russell didn’t need any help getting the songs across, but he carried his usual accompanist Andrew Hardin along with him to play some tasty lead guitar licks throughout the show. The setlist for the evening drew from throughout his lengthy songwriting career, with an emphasis on his last two albums, Borderland and The Man From God Knows Where.
Though Russell is primarily known as a songwriter, he began the show with a song from the pen of another legendary Texas tunesmith, the late Townes Van Zandt. Russell’s version of “Snowing on Raton”, resonated immediately with the crowd, and the lyric that ends the chorus, “Come morning I’ll be through these hills and gone,” could be a fitting description of his own road-weary existence.
The songs aside, one of the more enjoyable aspects of a small show like this is the opportunity for some interaction between the performer and the audience, which in this case was less than three feet away. Russell introduced “The Angel of Lyon”, a song co-written with Steve Young, by remembering a woman Hardin had spotted in Florida the week before. Hardin described her as “The Angel of Tampa”, but Russell and Hardin agreed that that just didn’t have the same ring as Lyon. “That’s why you’re the songwriter,” Hardin quipped back at him, to the crowd’s amusement. Their rendition of the song took a slow building verse into a chorus that Russell emphasized by stomping on the hardwood floor beneath him, punctuating the energetic tune.
From there, Russell took a chunk of the first set to play a few songs from his family concept album, The Man From God Knows Where. He introduced this segment with a humorous tale of travels through Ireland and a poem that he stole the album title from, “in the grand tradition of the American folk process.”
Amidst some more storytelling, Russell finished out the first set with an appropriately smoking take on “Put Me on the First Thing Smoking”, the Dave Alvin co-write, “Down the Rio Grande”, prefaced by Russell talking about having Alvin come out to his ranch in south Texas and putting him to work (Alvin supposedly tells him, “next time, call Leonard Cohen.”), and he even talked the audience into a sing-along on “Sinatra Played Juarez”, off of his latest album, Borderland.
During the second set, Russell delved deeper into his Tex-Mex tendencies, with “Rose of the San Joaquin”, a Tejano-style anthem he co-wrote with noted cowboy singer Ian Tyson, and an unnamed song he sang in Spanish. Referring to the latter as “tourist music”, Russell admitted he actually learned the song from the actor Harry Dean Stanton, whose version appears on the Paris, Texas soundtrack.
From there, Russell dug into his own extensive back catalog for the Merle Haggard-like “Blue Wing”, another Dave Alvin co-write, “Out in California”, and the mostly spoken “That’s What Work Is”, which was accented by a lovely instrumental intro from Andrew Hardin that Russell termed, “West coast jazz”.
Russell gave the attentive audience a treat with a new song, probably called, “Tulsa”, that contains the memorable chorus, “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.” Giving Hardin a break, he then did a solo turn on his classic, “The Sky Above, the Mud Below”, a tune that chills the listener no matter how many times they may have heard it before. The set closed on a more upbeat note, with a Katy Moffatt co-write, “Walking on the Moon”, that Russell called one of his only true love songs, and Hardin taking vocal and lead guitar duties on a driving version of “Driving Nails in My Coffin”.
Not even leaving the front of the room during the long round of applause that followed, Russell got a few last laughs with a comment about taking requests that referenced “The song about the one-eyed fighting rooster—the one we’re not going to do tonight.” This direct shot at what is perhaps his most well-known song, “Gallo Del Cielo”, notwithstanding, Russell was willing to tackle almost anything else, it seemed, whether he knew it or not. He ended up capping the evening with “Touch of Evil”, a self-described “stadium folk-rocker”, that he forgot the words to partway through, but after an admirable ad-lib, managed to finish nicely; and “Haley’s Comet”, one last Dave Alvin co-write for an audience member who admitted being an Alvin fan, too. Ending the night like he started, on a light note, Russell even tacked on a reasonably precise Dave Alvin impersonation in the last line.
Russell may not be a household name, even in the world of singer-songwriters, but for this evening, in this particular house, he was one for those lucky few in attendance.