Tom Russell’s new musical exploration of man, woman, dark and light, love and pain, is currently telling stories in my blood. Tejano Boogie, Mariachi Blues, the nuance driven stories of a poet musician who never seems to falter in vision, eloquence, and subject matter. Homages to Touch of Evil, visions of Sinatra crooning in old Juarez, a border guard who’s seen too much in “California Snow,” all chapters and rooms in a ongoing book and house where the vulnerable landscape of “human” somehow continues to mean something.
The salty Gulf Coast air will keep you dreaming, down the Rio Grande to where the source of the beating heart continues to tap out its rhythm that keeps you hoping and searching and snapping your soul’s fingers. The songs on this collection are all rooted in skin and flesh, longing and searching. Sure enough, these are blues songs of a Southwest ambiance, and you certainly can swim musically in these blues that roll along the river’s resume. Guitarist Andrew Hardin co-writes with Tom, the hauntingly beautiful “The Road It Gives, The Road It Takes Away”:
“…But we’ll sing hallelujah in the morning / And thank the Lord for giving us one more day / And for the ones who’ve passed on through / We’ll sing this one for you /Oh, the road it gives and the road it takes away…”
Tom Russell has forged a strong ongoing career of singing ones for those who’ve passed through. With his large heart, his flying consciousness that is able to adroitly encompass multi-cultures (he himself is a vital product of Ireland and Norway) and the stories that impact us therein, he has produced a sustaining body of songs/ stories/ poems that will still be hummed to wherever the ear and the spirit truly meet in some recognized empathy and hootenanny.
Friend and fellow heartfelt songwriter Dave Alvin co-writes “California Snow” and “Down the Rio Grande” on this offering. As usual, Andrew Hardin is a driving force with both acoustic and electric guitars. He supports also with percussion, tiple, and harmony vocals. Hardin is a consummate player, who has never let technique throttle passion. Producer and engineer Gurf Morlix also sits in on bass, among other contributions. His producer’s ear and Tom Russell’s magic are in synch all the way down the rhythm road on this one.
The times I see Russell and Hardin live, I am blessed as a concert goer with the essential fact that the process for them of playing in front of an audience is actually fun, and not just work. This is the key ingredient in any kind of mix that intends to outlast momentary phases of current interest. This essence certainly makes it onto this record. The subjects in these songs might seem dark and painful, harsh and world weary, but there is an invigoration in how these subjects are sung, and presented. The invigoration comes from empathy, and an ability to inject love into the overall angst of the characters. Wounded, the people are in these visions, but they are not down and out, for they are given clarity and flesh and bone in the storytelling of Tom Russell andĘ friends.
I was wondering, after the exceptional MAN FROM GOD KNOWS WHERE , Tom’s last album, what would he bring forth next. BORDERLAND is anĘ adventure, is a journey, is a search, is a pilgrimage, beginning and ending inĘ the variable canyons of the beating heart. The accordions, trumpets, drums, guitars, and oh yes, even Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy LaFave doing vocals, all raise you up into an ongoing soiree of recognition, and attention.
Encino Community Center
May 12, 2001
At a recent show in Encino, California (a huge suburb in Los Angeles) Tom Russell and Andrew Harding tore up the stage. The stage was a simple raised deal like we had in junior high school complete with half finished art-work from a play and the location was the simple Encino Community center. But once Russell and Harding took the stage their music was magical enough to turn the bare community center into a palace. For those of you who haven’t seen them, Russell and Harding have been playing folk rock for twenty years and are masters at what they do. I could start a rant here about the absurdity of the Backstreet boys doing shows at the Staples center while real musicians have to play community centers but I’d rather talk about the real musicians right now.
Harding is a pulse pounding guitarist and Tom Russell (on backing guitar) is a king of folk story telling. Starting the set with”The Angel of Leone,” and “Man From God Knows Where” he deftly weaves a tale of visiting Ireland and before you know it the tale has become a song and the song has become a Harding solo and everyone in the audience is yelling and whooping from the shear joy of it all. I’m not lying, you have to see a live show with Tom Russell. He played an hour set with songs from the new CD and old stuff like “Where the Dream Begins,” Dance Hall Girls,” the smokin’ “Last Bar on Earth,” and the amusing “Eyes of Roberto Duran.” The second hour was even better with the most awe inducing rendering of “Halley’s Comet” I have ever seen him do.
Tom Russell is not to be missed,. After the show I had arranged with his record label to get a few minutes for an interview. He was tired and had run into some friends he hadn’t seen in a long time that he was going to eat with. He had never heard from his record company he said, then he decided that he may have and just forgot and would give me ten minutes while he packed up. The next morning he was off to Switzerland. Through the interview I learned something about Russell I never realized, off stage he is a man of few words. Which is OK with me as long as he keeps doing live shows.