Tom Russell with Andrew Hardin, Lighthouse Theatre, Port Dover, Ontario, Canada, October 17, 2002

Port Dover has a restaurant that overlooks Lake Ontario, and people drive from miles around for a feast of perch. They tell me it is mighty tasty, good eating! Last night I travelled the long, flat road that is Highway 6 for a feast of a different kind: two and a half hours of some of the tastiest songs, guitar picking and singing you're ever likely to hear. Tom Russell, and long-time sideman Andrew Hardin took the stage at the Lighthouse Theatre and began by extolling the virtues of the perch dinner they had just enjoyed. Then they struck a ringing chord and began the night's entertainment with a song by the late Townes Van Zandt. And that's the way it went for the rest of the night.

Russell has a deep baritone reminiscent sometimes of John Stewart, other times of Ian Tyson, but it's always resonant and commanding. He plays a black Collings guitar. He loves his Collings guitar; he says it's better than the Martins or the Taylors preferred by many of his contemporaries, and based on the sound that came out of it last night, I'd have to agree with him. What a sound -- clear and bell-like. The black finish was worn right through from Russell's attack. Someday he'll have a hole there like Willie Nelson's old guitar! Hardin played a rich-toned Takamine; and his facility with both hands brought sounds from that acoustic guitar that made you swear he was playing a Telecaster. Russell's approach is fairly simple -- tell a story, personal and intimate, with a meaning that touches the listener's heart. He introduces every song with a humorous anecdote, and he's a great storyteller, whether singing or talking.

The night before, he'd been at Hugh's Room in Toronto. Sylvia Tyson (with whom he's written songs) had confronted him with this charge: "The first three songs you did were misogynistic!" Russell must have used the word "misogynistic" 30 times last night. It became a theme. Is Tom Russell a "hater of women"? I doubt it. He sings of the grace and beauty of a lover in song after song. (Listen to "If God Made the Grape, How Can the Wine be Bad?") Is he a romantic? A poet? A misogynist? Take a downer, Sylvia! Russell has also written with Sylvia's ex-partner Ian Tyson. He performed several of these "cowboy" tunes which capture the West without John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Russell's (and Tyson's) West is filled with colorful characters from a different time. "Gallo del Cielo" and "The Sky Above, the Mud Below" are startling examples!

In the first song Russell describes the life of a fighting cock, and its final desperate battle. The images of thrashing feathers and broken beaks carries you into the heart of the struggle. In "The Sky Above, the Mud Below" the sheer repetition of the title acts as a mantra reminding the listener of both the source of the title (a 60s documentary filed with shocking images of third world life) and the image of the horizontal parentheses between which the Mexican horse thief and the Deacon confront each other and frontier justice is dealt out.

Andrew Hardin was a revelation on guitar, his fingers flying to add colour and texture to Russell's rhythm. His vocal harmonies were appreciated as well, filling out the sound. His featured spot was on a version of Ernest Tubb's "Nails In My Coffin," with authentic harmonies and a whirlwind tour of country guitar styles (even blindfolded) which took this listener's breath away. What an extraordinary musician!

Russell is living in El Paso now. He's a short hop away from Juarez, and the sounds of Mexico have filtered into his songs. He tells a story about the old days when Hollywood stars would cross the border for a quicky wedding, or divorce; and then sings "When Sinatra Played Juarez" a singalong. He synopsizes Orson Welles' great film noire classic A Touch of Evil. He talks about the miscasting of Charlton Heston as a Mexican policeman, and Marlene Dietrich as the madame of a Juarez whorehouse, and then sings a powerful song named after the film. Mexican banditos, and carpet salesmen populate Russell's world and his art.

Hardin's guitar stylings echo the Spanish influence found in Russell's music. During the break, Russell and his accomplice were available to sign CDs, to take requests, and to chat. The Lighthouse Theatre is known for this intimacy. It is a cosy, comfortable setting. The patrons are regulars and I felt like an outsider at first but was welcomed warmly. Given the quality of this show, and the promise of Big Bill Morganfield next month, then Cheryl Wheeler and then two nights with Fred Eaglesmith in December, I have a feeling I'll be saying "Hi!" to Barry (who books the shows), Ed (the sound guy), and Dave (lights!) and the rest, quite often in the next little while! Thanks for a wonderful night.

[David Kidney]

Here are a couple of Web sites for further information:
Northshore Concert Presentations
Dark Angel: The Tom Russell Organization