My fist trip to Berkley since moving to the Bay Area was a great introduction to the town. After the beautiful, if congested, drive over the Bay Bridge at dusk, I headed to the Berkeley branch of Texas-based Half-Price Books where I purchased a used copy of Gail Folkins’ excellent Texas Dance Halls: A Two-Step Circuit. I took this as an omen.
I found the venue, The Freight & Salvage Coffee House, and parked on a nearby street. While heading to the space I had the good fortune to stumble on Everett & Jones Barbecue, where the wait is worth it and the hot sauce really is. I had the brisket plate. Then on to the show. The Freight & Salvage Coffee House has the DIY vibe of an 60’s coffee house where patrons would sit wired on Italian coffee and listen to songs about the coming revolution blowing in the wind. The capacity crowd this night might be a bit grayer and less primed for rebellion, but they still came to hear songs steeped in authenticity and passion.
At 58 Tom Russell looks like a younger version of the actor James Caan, and like his Bronx born doppelganger Russell has a workman-like delivery of his art. There are few performers more uniquely authentic than the Los Angeles native and El Paso resident. As a founder of contemporary Americana music songwriter Russell defies rigid genre boundaries to create work shaped by many sources -country, folk, Tejano – that lead to great, rather than a correctly formulated, songs. Like his contemporaries Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson, you do a disservice to the man by applying a label to him.
Russell has true Renaissance instincts that have shaped his music as well as his life – right out of the University of California Russell taught school in Nigeria during the Biafran war, he’s has published three books and is currently showing his paintings at Austin and Marfa Texas based Yard Dog galleries.
During the two-plus hour show Russell recalled great stories about friends, lost love, musicians, beat poets, songwriting, border politics and hearing the Doors’ “People Are Strange” on a seedy Mexican cantina juke box. The bartender smile a toothy smile when he say Russell’s amusement and states “Las puertas son las mejore!” Is it any wonder this all results in such great songs.
San Antonio’s Michael Martin provided intricately dazzling guitar and mandolin workto counter the hard tales Russell sang of illegal Mexican workers (Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?) grappling with mortality (The Pugilist at 59) and the pain of love (Down the Rio Grande and Navajo Rug.) Many of the songs are autobiographical and the gritty roads and and tequila soaked rendezvous are all palpable. If Willie Nelson is Texas’ Django Reinhardt then Russell is the states’ adopted Jack Kerouac.
As the attentive crowd sat rapt Russell then focused on the plight of Native Americans through a selection of songs including a stirring version of Peter La Farge’s lament of the Pima Indian who was one of the five Marines and one Navy Corpsman who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, The Ballad of Ira Hayes.
Russell closed out the show with an encore featuring the somber prison song Blue Wing and put a fine finish on my introduction to Berkley. As learned and unorthodox as I could have hoped for.
Tom Russell – Gallo del Cielo – Freight and Salvage, Berkeley CA