Master of folk music gives a stunning performance

Master of folk music gives a stunning performance

Review: Albany Times-Union
by MICHAEL RIVEST, Special to the Times Union
First published Monday, February 21, 2005

ALBANY — A folk legend came to town Saturday night, and he wore that label as comfortably as he did his own skin under his untucked purple Hawaiian shirt. Tom Rush is the master of his genre. The capacity crowd of loyal fans knew this going in, of course, so Rush had nothing to prove. But he sure didn’t disappoint, either.

The intimate WAMC auditorium was the perfect venue for Rush. He didn’t invent the “coffeehouse raconteur” thing, but many would say he perfected it, getting his start in smoky 1960s Cambridge folk joints, like the Unicorn and Club 47. An aging guitar player in the audience remembered seeing Rush at Club 47 in 1968. OK, it was me. But I’ll bet a dozen or so other graying guitar players in the audience had a similar memory. When it comes to Rush and us, the roots go deep.

He opened with the standard, “It’s Gonna Get Cold Tonight,” relying on an Epiphone Texan in D-tuning, one of the two guitars he used. The other was an old Martin in standard tuning.

Rush next played a pensive “What an Old Lover Knows,” a new song by a writer he discovered — Melanie Dyer. Now I make this point because when Rush alerts us to a new songwriter, we’d be well advised to pay attention. He proved this as early as 1968, when his “Circle Game” album introduced a few other songwriters who wound up doing rather well — Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor.

In true coffeehouse tradition, Rush was deft between songs with sidesplitting stories about moving from New Hampshire to Wyoming in 1991. “I didn’t know what to do with bison on my lawn.” He noted that, in Wyoming, “a driver can’t have a drink in his hand if stopped by the police; the passenger, however, can have two.”

When it came to the music, Rush was deadly serious, thundering through Sleepy John Estes’ “Drop Down Mama,” his own “Merrimack County,” and old Mississippi blues man Bukka White’s “Panama Limited,” a train song every guitar player in the 1960s swore he could play, praying he’d never have to prove it.

There was plenty of time for softer moments, too, when Rush’s velvet baritone wrapped around Mitchell’s “Circle Game,” and embraced his own “No Regrets,” a song he followed with his familiar, stunning instrumental composition, “Rockport Sunday.”

Rush’s emotional encore was Murray McLaughlin’s “A Child’s Song,” a plaintive tale of having to grow up and leave Mom and Dad behind. It still goes straight to the heart, but now time has turned the tables. When he first recorded this song in 1970, we were the departees; now it’s our kids. I don’t know if the irony was intentional, but the tissues were out.

Michael Rivest is a freelance writer and an occasional contributor to the Times Union.

Where: WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium, Albany, NY
Highlights: The driving “Panama Limited” and a haunting, killer rendition of a “Child’s Song”
The crowd: SRO of 200 mostly aging folkies, along with a few young ones there to hear what we’ve been talking about all these years.