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Entries in Palmeira (2)


Tom Russell in Hove, actually

It is one of life's continuing mysteries how as good a songwriter as Tom Russell manages to stay below so many music fans' radar.

His gig at Hove's Palmeira pub was the last on a British tour which I haven't seen written up elsewhere. Of course, it was sold out - but, come on: that means maybe a hundred people. Even I have sung a song at the Palmeira...  Tom was reminiscing fondly about the last time he had played Brighton at 'an East Indian ballroom' (the Hanbury in Kemptown). I've also seen him at the Greys (a far smaller pub than the Palmeira) and the Anchor out in Barcombe (hidden in the depths of the country, beyond the reach of our satnav).Why not the Dome - which regularly features folk who live many floors below Tom in the Tower of Song? Go figure.

It feels wrong to say 'Tom Russell gig' in the same way that 'Gillian Welch concert' is only halfway there. The great Thad Beckman is Tom's David Rawlings, conjuring similarly beautiful and essential sounds from his battered and ancient Gibson. Perhaps less oblique in his strategies than Rawlings, but full of both subtlety and power, and blessed with jaw-dropping technique. There were frequent pauses for roaring applause after beautiful solos - with Tom mock-ruefully decrying his audience as 'bastards'.

Russell's interaction with the crowd is practised and warm, with lots of stories and bizarre asides. He enjoys trying out his British accent, playing around the familiar local Brighton line that he is now in Hove, 'actually'. Over the evening we also get a burst of Norwegian (in honour of some fans who've flown in from Bergen); a graceful acknowledgement of shouted praise for his pristine new cowboy boots (seemingly made of orange suede); and Pancho Villa's final words (clearly a born delegator, they were 'don't let it end like this - tell them I said something').

I do sometimes have a problem with Tom's more sentimental side, but not this time. He played some songs of that can cross the line - 'Finding You', 'Guadalupe', 'Nina Simone' - but kept them straight, direct and powerful. The set as a whole was simply one to treasure, stuffed full of classics and probably the best I've seen him play.

Too many highlights to enumerate fully, but let's list a few: an inspired immigration double-punch to end the first set of a beautifully sung reading of the glorious 'California Snow' followed by a stonking and unanswerable singalong 'Who's Going To Build Your Wall?'; then a similar double-punch closing the second half, with an appropriate boxing theme - 'Muhammad Ali' and (one of my very favourites) 'The Pugilist Is 59'. Special mention also for a disquisition on Bob Dylan which included Tom singing a burst of 'Love Is Just A Four Letter Word', followed by the opening line of 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' and then shouting 'take that, Shakespeare!'; and for his final encore of a Johnny Cash medley - this is a man of taste.

In what is already shaping up to be a fine year for live music, this is bound to be up there in the best gig list. Well played, Tom and Thad: long may you run.


Hiss Golden Messenger in Hove

At Hove's Palmeira pub last night Mike Taylor, the man behind the Hiss Golden Messenger monicker, memorably compared his songwriting to building lightning conductors. Putting the songs out there and seeing if a flash of electricity will coruscate through them... He has a remarkable hit-rate and his fine set fairly crackled with spine-tingling moments. A definite smell of ozone, I'd say.

It was impressive that Taylor, and fellow traveller guitar maestro William Tyler, were even awake and coherent, having flown in from the US over the previous night, the airline mislaying their merchandise crate along the way. They seemed genuinely pleased to be doing what they were doing and both were on strong form. The only obvious sign of a fuddled brain came from Mike forgetting a line from his encore song 'Jesus Shot Me In The Head.' He checked with the audience, started again and nailed it with a glorious performance.

The latest HGM album Haw benefits from varied arrangements and a range of other musical contributions, but there is a particular intensity in hearing the songs played solo: concentrating more on the words, through his rich, slightly slurry, vocal delivery, against the backdrop of the sinuous pulse of his distinctive guitar style.

And just what is going on in those words? I'm happy to report that I can't exactly tell you. There is that intriguing sense of something lurking, alluded to and not fully addressed, sometimes light, sometimes dark. There is a lot of biblical imagery, which doesn't seem to be used for straightforwardly biblical purposes: introducing one song, Taylor described trying and failing to persuade a gospel singer friend to record a backing vocal for it - 'she belongs to the church, I belong to something else'. But there is nothing casual or manipulative about this; he clearly understands the weight and power of the pictures he is painting, in anticipation of a time 'when the truth will be revealed as something we can't see'.

Incidentally, I haven't seen an explanation anywhere of the Hiss Golden Messenger name: my take, for what it's worth, would be another twist of biblical image - 'His golden messenger' evoking an angel or a prophet, the extra sibilant showing that the serpent is closely involved in this too... Pretty much the human condition, really. 

Whatever. There is a depth and a heft to what HGM does which sets those sort of thought patterns going. Dive into Haw, or catch him on this tour, and see what Taylor's songs will do for you.

And a PS for Mike: do a song or two with William - that would be great.