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Tom Russell, 27 July 2013

The Palmeira, Hove

27 July 2013

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.

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