Note: I suck and I don't have any Tom Russell albums, so I peppered this post with other noted tracks. I just received an Amazon gift certificate, and guess what I am spending it on?
It's been six years since my brother Knut and I saw Tom Russell play a intimate set at Kafe K in Porsgrunn. That was back in 2003, and Tom had just released Modern Art (2003). Knut and I showed up with a friend of ours, we brought most of our records, and a stolen copy of Tom's novel Blood Sport for him to sign. Tom was playing with Andrew Hardin back then, and before the show we ran into them on street. We shook hands and talked, and I think Tom was surprised to meet such young fans. Tom put on a great show for us, he sang our requests, talked to us, signed all our records and the out of print copy of Blood Sport, witch I lifted from my high school library. Porsgrunn is nothing but a dirty little factory town in Telemark, but I have such fond memories from that November night back in 2003. That show is really special to me. Since then, I've missed a few chances to see Tom perform, so this time I got my tickets early.
Knut couldn't go. He had to stay home for different reasons, and that made this experience a little less fun. But, my good friend and band mate Frode didn't hesitate when I asked him to join me. At 09:30 am we boarded the train bound for Oslo at the Arendal train station. The shady Arendal train station made me realize how much I hate that town. I went to school there, and I work there, but I could never live there. I was glad to leave. The best way to prepare for a Tom Russell concert is by riding the rails. The conductor waved the flag, and we where out of there. I was thinking about Woody Guthrie in Tom Russell's song "Woodrow" as the train picked up speed and left that suffocating small town behind.
"Oh, the trains leave every morning, some go east and some go west
And the clacking of the iron is the sound you love the best."
This wasn't our great escape from railroad bulls or the Coney Island girl's. No, Frode and I were running from our day jobs, and our conformist lives. Two days off from work, two days away.
It took about 15 minutes to get out of Arendal. There is something funny about seeing your home pass by you from a train, or any kind of transportation really. Tom T. Hall knew it. "I Flew Over Our House Last Night." So, while looking at the farms and the open fields of Froland, my home, and driving through the deep dark woods of Vegårshei and Gjerstand and watching the green piny hills of Telemark open up before us, Frode and I discussed everything. It had been too long since last we talked. The daily grind will do that to you. You'll have to make time for friendship. We talked about our Martin guitars, we talked about folk/blues, literature, movies and off course our high hopes for the night's concert.
I Flew Over Our House Last Night.mp3
Buy: Storyteller, Poet, Philosopher (1995 Box Set)
Frode's knowledge of old history and politics amazes me. He is a classically trained guitar player. And he can pick up a guitar and play anything from old Irish laments, to British and American folk, to blues tunes. He is an expert on the British folk revival, and his heroes include Bert Jansch, Wizz Jones, Davy Graham, and John Renbourn, who we are seeing in Oslo this summer at Herr Nilsen, with another great guitar picker named Stephen Grossman. It took us about three and a half hours to get into Oslo, who before 1878 was named Kristiania. A town I both love and hate. Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun both lived there. Hamsun wrote his novel Sult (Hunger)there. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson referred to Oslo as "the City of Tigers," "Tigerstaden." I like the renaming better, "Tiggerstaden," "The City of Beggars."
We took a taxi to Rosenkrantzgate and checked into the hotel. The hotel, Bondeheimen, opened back in 1913, is an old place. Knut Hamsun stayed there, Sigrid Undset too. We got a drink from the mini bar, left our bags at the hotel and hit the town. First we located Herr Nilsen. I'd never been there before. It is a medium sized blues club with a bar and a stage. We checked our watches and decided that we had at least five hours to kill before show time. We went outside and found a nearby restaurant. Frode had read about this place called "New Orleans Restaurant." It was in walking distance off both Boneheimen and Herr Nilsen. We decided to go for it.
We went in, sat down and let the beautiful waitress take our order. I ordered chicken gumbo for starters and the catfish with sweet mashed potatoes for my main course. It was perfect. They even played Guy Clark over the stereo. We had the place to ourselves for most of the time, but then at the end a busload of old tourists poured in and we didn't see our beautiful waitress again. Too bad.
When we had finished our meal we went prowling the book stores. I love Oslo for it's book stores and record shops. And I love the music halls too. It's the cultural center of Norway. We spent over an hour in one book store. We decided to go back to the hotel to get another drink and relax before the show.
The show was set to start at 21:00, we walked in around seven. We got ourselves a couple of Heinekens and found front row seats. It took about twenty minutes for the place to crawl with people. It was a good thing we came early. I had brought a few records for Tom to sign. Knut gave me his Tonight We Ride EP before I left and told me to get Tom to sign it. I also had my camera with me, but as it turned out, it's batteries were running low. Shit. I only got to take a few pictures.
We sat there for an hour, talking. I told Frode about the time in Porsgrunn when Tom walked up to us pointing his fingers at us like they were 45s and asked us if we "were looking for trouble." Off course Frode had heard this all before. I also told him how Tom wrote about Knut and I in his blog (Tom Russell's Blog). And said that meeting us was his highlight of that particular tour. I told him how Tom stood on stage, threatening to "come out there" if the drunks at the bar wouldn't shut up. He towered over us that night, saying stuff like, "Don't make me come back there you bastards! I'm the toughest guy in this joint. Me and Charles Bukowski!" I couldn't wait for the show to start. Our conversation was interrupted by an American. Carl, or Crazy Carl. He wanted to talk to us, mostly about his life. We had nothing better to do so we listened.
We drank some more beer and waited. The PA system played "Lay, Lady Lay." I was wondering if Tom would remember me. I didn't want to look like the fan boy in front of the stage who knew all the words to all his songs, because I'm getting to old for that. But I'm still that kid. I still obsess over Tom's song. I obsess over music in general. If there's a back story to a song, I want to know it. If there's a name of a town or a person in a song and I don't recognize it, I look it up. I'm still that 18-year-old fan boy I was back in 2003, and I couldn't wait to see Tom again.
Lay Lady Lay.mp3
Buy: Nashville Skyline (1969, reissued 2004)
Michael Martin walked on stage. He got his Martin and tuned it up. The lights didn't dim, Dylan didn't stop singing. It was still twenty minutes before Tom would walk on stage. Crazy Carl called Michael "Andrew." I turns out Crazy Carl didn't know that Tom had a new guitar player. Martin walked up to us, I asked him when the new Russell album would come out and if he played on it. He said it would be out in September, and "no", he "didn't play on it." "Tom wants to do something different on this album," he told us. He is working with Calexico, and he is recording at Wavelab studios in Tucson, Arizona. Frode and Michael talked about guitars for a bit, and I asked if I could take his picture.
Then Tom came out, he walked onstage wearing his hat, a big coat, and brown cowboy boots. He looked like a sophisticated wild man wearing those black and red framed glasses. Tom had to walk past me to get on stage. He looked right at me, and extended his hand. We shook. Frode smiled from ear to ear. I did too. Tom got up on stage, grabbed his beat up black Collings guitar and went to work. He towered over us again.
"Hello Oslo, it's good to be back. I want to start off with a little Leonard Cohen." Then he went right into "Tower of Song."
"I asked Hank Williams how lonely does it get." Tom knows his place. Watching him perform is something really special. His presence does not go unnoticed. It's the same presence my dad talked about when he talked about seeing Johnny Cash live. I'd felt it before,while watching Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Billy Joe Shaver perform.
Tower of Song.mp3
Buy: I'm Your Man (1988)
Tom didn't waste any time, he went right into "The Pugilist At 59" followed by "Ash Wednesday," both lifted from Love and Fear (2006).
He told us he wanted to do a cover, he wanted to sing a song by Townes Van Zandt. The crowd cheered. "Townes still owes me a hundred dollars," Tom said with a grin. Michael Martin pulled out the mandolin for this song and it was beautiful. Tom wanted us to sing along with the chorus, I couldn't help myself, so I sang along with the whole thing.
Tom wanted to play some new songs, and he sang "Guadeloupe." Tom closed his eyes and sang the last verse, and while doing so, left me in the dark hiding my tears.
"Here I am your ragged disbeliever
Old doubting Thomas drowns in tears
As I watched your church sink through the earth
Like a heart worn down through fear."
Gretchen Peters just recorded it on her new album One To The Heart, One To The Head (2009). I didn't connect with Tom's album Love And Fear that much, but I loved Hotwalker: Charles Bukowski & A Ballad for Gone (2005). I think Tom's forthcoming studio album Blood and Candlesmoke (to be released on September 22, 2009) will be a great return to form.
Tom thanked us in his frail Norwegian, "Tusen Takk." He used to live in Oslo. He and Andrew Hardin used to play all night sets in old beer cellars in Oslo back in the 80s, they used to run up and down Karl Johans gate to sober up before the gigs. Tom told us that the town had cleaned up since then. And that we were less wild and rugged.
"Drink more beer you bastards!"
Then he did another new one called "Nina Simone." I wanted to cry. I did. Then he played "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall," we all sang along. Tom said that back in the U.S. a lot of people didn't like the song. And that David Letterman didn't want him to sing that last verse about "White men in golf shirts, with cellphones in their ears."
"I sang it anyway," Tom said with a huge "eat shit and die" grin. We all cheered.
The sing along was great. The audience was having a blast, though some people kept yelling for older songs, and Tom seemed to want to play new stuff. He did "East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam," a new one about his year as a teacher in Africa. Tom talks about this song in his blog, and he told us almost the same story:
"I went to Nigeria, and came of age in the market places and bars of Ibadan, while the U.S. was landing a man on the moon. I was carving wood and musical dreams. It was a world of mosquito nets and oil burning motorbikes and cook fires and Ibeji carvings. And guns. It all went down… East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam."
He played a few more songs, "Stealing Electricity" and "Tonight We Ride," then took a break. He walked off stage. And his wife Nadine who had been watching the show from behind the bar came out and started selling T-shirts, CD's and books. I wanted to buy the new Tom Russell & Ian Tyson DVD but she only brought two copies and I didn't get there fast enough. I picked up the last copy she had of Tom's book Tough Company: A collection of letters from Charles Bukowski (2008). I also bought a Tom Russell Band Live CD, called Lost Angels of Lyon, Live: 1989 Lyon, France (out of print).
I talked to some really nice people. I talked to two wonderful girls. A mother and a daughter who were both huge Tom Russell fans. The daughter was only seventeen years old, and she had been listening to Tom since forever. She knew all the songs, and she wanted Tom to play "Blue Wing." Tom walked back on stage, and the first song he sang was "Blue Wing." We all sang along together. I didn't bother to return for my beer and my seat. I was standing in front. I yelled out for "Woodrow." Tom played it. He talked about Woody teaching Ramblin' Jack Elliot to play guitar, and how Ramblin' Jack (who was the best man at Tom's wedding) would stay up all night at Woody's place at Mermaid Avenue. They'd drink and play some guitar. And Woody would stagger off to bed while the kids got up and got ready for school. I sang along to the song. I thanked Tom when it was over.
Tom was in a great mood, and he joked with the audience. He kept calling us "you bastards!" He asked for a Redbull, "it's illegal here, right?" The bartender said, "it's legal now!" "Fuck it then! I was backstage doing meth for twenty minutes," Tom said in his "macho voice."
"You bastards better not try something, or I'll kick some ass up here!"
He wanted to play "Grapevine," but he couldn't remember it. Instead he took a request and played "Spanish Burgundy." Tom didn't forget anything else though. He played the new song "Santa Ana Wind" inspired by Joan Didion. He played "Walking On The Moon" and everybody sang along. Tom and Martin almost burned the house down with "Out in California," and let us cool down with another song he wrote with Dave Alvin called "California Snow."
He played a few more new songs and ended the show with "Gallo Del Cielo" and "Halley's Comet." He rocked the place. It was spectacular, people stomped their feet, clapped along, yelled the lyrics back at him and Crazy Carl was up on stage doing some fucking fire trick with some flammable paper that you can buy at magic shops (he showed us before the show) that he used to do back in his DJ days. It was crazy.
I went up to Tom right after the show. He looked at me and smiled, "Where is your brother? And which one are you again?" I told him I was Jan, and he told me it was great to see me again. I said that Knut had given me something for him to sign. I took out the limited edition of the Tonight We Ride EP, and Tom said, "Wow, you guys." He signed it, and told me to give my best regards to Knut and that he hoped Knut could come next time.
"I'm coming back next year," he said. I told him we'd be there. He singed my Bukowski book, and I showed him my camera and said, "I'd love to get a picture." He reached down his hand and said "get up here, you bastard!" He pulled me on the stage and put his arms around me. He told his wife, "This is Jan, he has a twin brother, they know ALL my songs." She smiled. And Tom shook my hand again and told me to come out next time.
I wanted to stay. I wanted to ask him about Bukowski, Dave Van Ronk, about Cormac McCarthy, Peckinpah, Dylan, film noir, Edward Abbey. But there wasn't time. More CD's to sign, more people to talk to. Maybe next time. I was happy, Tom remember me. That was enough for now. I didn't want to impose.
I found Frode, who had spent a lot of time trying to get away from Crazy Carl, but with no luck. He enjoyed the show, but got a little distracted by Crazy Carl, the ex-DJ turned magician. We said goodbye to some of the fans, I met the mother and daughter outside. We talked for a few minutes. Everybody was pleased. We could have talked for hours and maybe waited for Tom outside. We could have painted the town, but Frode and I talked our way back to the hotel. It was hot as hell, April 30 had turned into May 1st, International Workers Day. Everybody was drunk. A farm kid and a suburban kid seeking shelter. Keeping to the shadows, I kept thinking about Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, I was on guard. I could feel it. The tiger's were out tonight.
Video from that night's show in Oslo, with a wonderful crowd sing-along. "Walking on the Moon"