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Tom Rush: The Circle Game

15 January 2005

The thing I had most forgotten about Tom Rush is that he is as much storyteller/comedian as he is musician. That became apparent on a frosty Saturday night at Swallow Hill warmed by two hour-long Rush sets that spanned the length and breadth of his four-decade career.

Rush was one of my initial guitar inspirations, but I have been seriously remiss in following his career. Though I play the four vinyl records I bought in the early 1970s, I don’t even own a TR CD, and I had never interviewed him. Though he has come to Denver many times, I have only seen him perform once.

That was in the early 1990s, when he appeared in Boulder at the Folks Festival up at Chautauqua Auditorium, the historic and cavernous building upon whose stage trod immortals like Billy Sunday and David Hidalgo and which Michelle Shocked, looking at the wooden frame of the ceiling, described quite accurately as “like being inside a giant guitar.”

I can’t remember how or why, but Gil and I were MCs for that all-day show, and we actually played as the Soldiers of Love on a stage out by the kid’s playground that afternoon. Could they have been that hard up for performers?

Second on the bill that Sunday was some pretentious folk-singer-of-the-day – what was her name? – who had a couple of indie releases getting some critical attention. Backstage, I didn’t recognize her when we met, and she gave me one of those “don’t-you-know-who-I-am?” looks. She apparently believed the drivel we rock writers dish up about them. She wanted everyone to jump and run for the young artiste.

In contrast, on that day Rush was quiet, unassuming and as unpretentious as he could be. And once he started fingerpicking, nobody remembered what’s-her-name.

Fifteen years later, I finally get my moment with Tom Rush. When I saw he was playing, I emailed G Brown to say I would love to talk with him on the air and introduce him in front of the Swallow Hill crowd. And thus it was.

Rush, of course, is the ultimate professional. He’s been doing this for a long time, and his banter is clever, quick and studied – he will use several of the same introductory shticks this morning during his evening set, and his playing, though a bit rough, is mighty effective.

I really wanted to call for a couple of old favorites but bit my lip after asking him just before we went on about what he wanted to play and he indicated a couple of numbers I didn’t know. It’s radio. Go with the flow, you know.

We did about twenty five minutes on the air. Afterwards, Rush signed the station’s signature guitar and added his name to the studio’s Wall O’Autographs. KCUV photographer Greg took pictures during the set, and I snap one of him and Tom and he snaps one of Tom and me, arm and arm. Not something I usually do, but what the hey? Going with the flow.

Later, in the evening, Billie and I attend our first Swallow Hill show in Daniels Hall. (Last SH show we saw was T Bone Burnett and Sam Phillips in some other Denver church even smaller than this one – that had to be a while back.) Under the guidance of the legendary bandleader Chris Daniels, after whom the hall is named, the folk organization bought a South Denver Protestant church just off Broadway and crafted it to its own needs: intimate concert venue, recording studio, teaching space and a place for those who love great acoustic music to hang out.

Rush is no stranger to Swallow Hill, and you can see the audience is mostly Rush-heads in a certain, uh, age group into which Billie and I fit. There are more than a few long-sleeved winter edition KCUV t-shirts in attendance.

I meet Troy, Swallow Hill manager, and Jim Williams, the executive director, with whom I chat briefly in the hallway backstage over who’ll say what during the introduction. Tom has changed into a Hawaiian shirt for the show and seems in great spirits.

Jim goes out onstage to talk about Swallow Hill and asks who came the farthest distance and gets “North Carolina” in reply. Standing behind me, Tom whispers that at his Loveland show last night, some guy from Italy showed up, a big fan.

I managed to bungle my intro, but it works and Tom ambles onstage.

Rush had explained on the air that he performs a few set songs each show that he says fans expect and uses his wide repertoire to fill in around the edges. And on this night, he gave this old dog more than enough bones upon which to chew.

You could argue that onstage Rush is a comedian who occasionally plays music. His banter has that sense of between-song timing that in my memory can be traced back at least to Dave Guard, whose brainy introductions were among the many things that attracted me to my first musical obsession, the Kingston Trio.

At age eleven I learned every pause and nuance of Guard’s deadpan delivery to “The Merry Minuet” (with its reference to Eisenhower Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) and “M.T.A” (“citizens hear me out, this could happen to you.”) I didn’t always understand what he was talking about, but I could tell from his delivery and audience reactions that it was hip and cool. Same with Tommy Smothers.

Though Rush is just as rehearsed as Guard or Smothers, his ramblings have a more stream-of-consciousness feel. The songs themselves are almost afterthoughts, loosely strung around his funny tales and one-line observations about forty years of life on the road. He’s also partial to stories of growing up in New Hampshire and living in Wyoming.

He admitted he was still working up new material for Santa Barbara, California, where he moved in June after many years in rural Wyoming, and tried a few out on us. He doesn’t think it will be too hard to make fun of California, punctuating that thought with a funny story about Trevor Veitch, his one-time band foil and guitarist, who lives in North Hollywood and, says Rush, is now a Scoutmaster.

He repeated the songs he played on the radio, including “River Song,” and that romping Sleepy John Estes blues, “Drop Down Mama.” His voice is pretty scratchy, but he finished the one that he bailed on in the studio – too early in the day to sing that high, he said at noon. “Silly Little Diddle” is a recent knock-off that began as a paean to his five-year-old daughter. (“Pee-on” jokes were a recurring theme throughout the monologues.)

A real highlight was an extended version of Bukka White’s “Panama Limited” that let him show off that quirky, slide-guitar style that still distinguishes him from others of his era. The train song ended the first set with a magnificent flourish. Why not? It’s the song from his very first Elektra album that really drew guitar players to his quirky style.

He did several bits from his recent stitched-together Trolling for Owls, which gathers many of the amusing songs and comedy routines he has worked out over the years, including one about a middle-aged guy who always forgets where he’s at (I can’t remember the title, hah-hah) and another “Wyoming song,” “Killing Coyotes,” that I am going to have to learn.

Couple of surprises, including a nice rhythmic version of his own “Merrimac County,” the absurdist John Prine/Fred Koller collaboration, “Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian,” and “Drift Away,” which he introduced by telling a story about meeting Mentor Williams, who wrote the song, a big hit for Dobie Gray and a standard that is even included in every Mallworthy set.

He did it in that G or D tuning that he and Joni Mitchell share. He talked about meeting Mitchell while playing the Checkmate in Detroit and getting a tape from her, which included a song, with a personal note saying she had written it the night before and she was afraid it was too unfinished.

That was “The Circle Game,” which also became the title of his best-known album and helped jump-start both of their careers. Though he said he usually only plays one Joni-song a night, he played both “The Circle Game” and “Urge for Going,” much to my delight.

Besides waking me to the fact that “Urge for Going” is done in regular tuning – I have been working on it since — this performance reminded me that Rush has the rare ability to sing softly.

It’s a trait easily overlooked by its very nature and by his powerful guitar playing, but effective nonetheless. Rush closed with “No Regrets,” which he coupled with “Rockport Sunday,” the final two songs on The Circle Game.

In one of those twists of artistic fate, a couple lines of the chorus to “No Regrets” have been quoted by Bono, a performer not particularly known for subtlety, in recent U2 performances.

But restraint is the essence of Tom Rush. There are no histrionics and there is no pretension in his performance of “No Regrets.” The guitar chords ring out, punctuating the tension in the verses before he almost whispers the chorus, “no regrets,” once again letting the chords ring around his voice.

Today “musicians” use software to keep their vocals in pitch and move their lips to pre-recorded tapes onstage because, we are told, their audiences expect perfection.

Thanks, but no thanks. Rush knows that there are still a few of us who would rather see real people and hear voices as they actually sound. And so, a quiet huzzah for imperfection and being slightly out of tune.


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