In Concert : Honorary homecoming Headliner’s honorary homecoming
By JOSEF WOODARD
Tom Russell and the acclaimed Sings Like Hell series go way back. So far back, in fact, he might be considered one of its accidental architects. Series founder Peggie Jones introduced Mr. Russell’s headliner set Saturday at Lobero Theatre by explaining that it was through his performance on her front yard in Santa Ynez in the early ’90s — along with shows by Dave Alvin and Peter Case — that the Sings Like Hell idea came into being. By now, the series is an institution.
All these years later, Mr. Russell might not be considerably known in the musical mainstream, but his artistic story and discography keep growing richer and deeper. Critics, discerning fans and musicians have taken note. On Saturday, the Los Angeles-born, Texas-based Mr. Russell, joined by Michael Martin on guitar and mandolin, wended his way through a song set touching on a career three decades long.
As it happens, Mr. Russell’s links to Santa Barbara run deeper than we imagined, making his show here something of an honorary homecoming. Mr. Russell earned a master’s degree in criminology at UCSB, which he commemorated with a nutty autobiographical song called “Criminology.” And he explained the backdrop of a post-modern vaquero song called “Tonight We Ride,” inspired by a dizzy horseback experience he had in the Santa Ynez mountains with “a pitcher of margaritas in one hand and a notepad in the other.” Currently, he’s in the middle of making a film about his sister-in-law, who runs a farm in nearby Cuyama.
While Mr. Russell can wriggle into the realm of socio-political conscience in his songs, he also shows an admirable interest in exploring human experience from more than a narrow ideological filter. On his latest album, Mr. Russell called up the incisive social comment of “Who’s Gonna’ Build the Wall,” sympathizing with the immigration issue in the wake of President Bush’s plan to erect a massive border wall.
His song “Stealing Electricity,” from the 2006 album “Love and Fear,” also extends compassion to the disenfranchised immigrant, its lyrics doubling as a metaphor for the dangerous business of love. But Mr. Russell also sang a song co-written with Mr. Alvin called “The Other Side of the Story,” about a border patrolman from San Diego.
Although he’s a hard one to pin down in terms of a stylistic base, Mr. Russell is mostly an intellectual cowboy tale spinner, relying on simple chord progressions and a rambling, raconteur’s way with words. He’s a bright, literate sort, who sometimes packs his songs with too much poetic firepower and wordplay, without letting the songs breathe and flow.
But he can also blend narration and philosophy in disarming ways, as in his new song “Guadalupe,” in which he juggles themes of romantic vertigo, religious quests and the sinking cathedral in Mexico City. “I’m the least of pilgrims here,” he sings, with only a smidgen of self-pity, “but I am most in need of hope.”
In a way, Mr. Russell’s set fulfilled expectations for those familiar with his crafty, funny songbook and stage presence. The evening’s pleasant surprise came with captivating opening act, singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell and her ace four-piece band.
When Ms. Jewell announced she was from Boston, some of us thought she said “Austin,” given the clearly Texan bent of her music. But country-western cred is available anywhere genuine talent and tradition-hugging integrity is in place.
Ms. Jewell actually is Idaho-born and -bred, and she brings a loamy lyricism to her music on prize songs such as “Rich Man’s World” and “Where They Never Say Your Name,” both from her new album “Letters from Sinners and Strangers.” Her songs are marvels of old-school craft, and she tapped songs by Bessie Smith and Loretta Lynn, channeling their brilliance with her own personalized touch.
Musically, the base ingredient of her band is classic country, with natural detours into western swing and rockabilly. Guitarist Jerry Miller, with his tasty, twangy riffs and sharp, hard-shell white cowboy hat, was the instrumental star of a night in Hell with much to admire. Saturday’s concert closed the series’ 2007 schedule in high Texan — and surrogate Texan — style.