Tom Russell says that there are only two real scenarios when it comes to storytelling; either a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes into town. This may well be true and it strikes me that Tom Russell is both of these characters – a troubadour of the roads and an artist who visits various locations for a brief stay, before slipping away to the next stop on his personal journey.
Two years since his last appearance at Whelan’s this irrepressible talent returns with a powerful performance that includes all his usual banter, bluster, humour and insight.
Joined by the very impressive Max Di Bernardi on guitar, Tom Russell delivers two sets of stirring and reflective songs that has the capacity crowd smiling broadly and applauding vigorously.
Ever the showman, Russell is like a circus ringmaster as he announces songs with preambles full of interesting asides and stories. The first set is entirely taken from his latest release, the epic Rose of Roscrae, a western folk opera that spans some 25 songs and clocks in at 2 hours of listening time. It is certainly an epic work and he takes us through a whistle-stop tour of the main events in the 8 songs chosen to give a flavour of the tale.
Thought provoking and full of fascinating storylines, the content of Hair Trigger Heart, Johnny Behind the Deuce, Guadalupe, Tonight We Ride, Jesus Met the Woman at the Wel, I Talk to God, He Wasn’t a Bad Kid When He Was Sober and the title song, are all received like old favourites and the pace of the performance is full throttle as Russell and Di Bernardi deliver a stirring guitar tour de force, full of fluid playing, driving rhythm and some dynamic solo work from Di Bernardi.
Putting in a strong second set is key to the overall mood on the night as Tom visits his back catalogue with favourites such as St Olav’s Gate, Blue Wing, Stealing Electricity, Navajo Rug, Who Will Build Your Wall, When Irish Girls Grow Up, East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam - all taking a turn to raise the atmosphere created among those present to witness this talent at play.
A version of Raglan Road is particularly moving and the beautiful Finding You, dedicated to Tom’s wife, is sung with a real tenderness and vulnerability. There are songs dedicated to family members, some of whom are present, to Donald Trump in all his crazy actions and to the ensemble of musical talent who have given their time and energy to the new project, The Rose of Roscrae.
Tom is a fine guitar player and his easy onstage manner adds hugely to a most enjoyable experience. Regaling the crowd with shouts of ‘Ye Bastards’ between songs brings much laughter and response from the audience and Tom handles everything with great aplomb and a smile that shows he is always in control.
A walk on the wild side, a trip down colourful streets, an artful glance at life in all its vicissitudes and a nodding wink at the randomness of it all.
Welcome to the magical world of Tom Russell; song-writer, painter-artist, novelist-writer and a performer who has left an enduring mark upon this Earth.
Review and photograph by Paul McGee