Tom Russell’s love affair with Ireland is long established but Friday night was the first time he’d graced the stage in Belfast’s Clayton Hotel. Decked out in white Stetson and red bandana there was no mistaking this dude’s cowboy credentials.
The show commenced with a quick quiz; Russell played the opening bars of a few well-known tunes and invited audience members to shout out who’d composed them. Whopping tracks like Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty and Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song were mixed in there, and it was almost a disappointment not to hear the full tracks.
Throughout the evening, Russell proved that he’s as almost as skilful a storyteller and he is a musician; running jokes and hokey accents were all part of the performance. A group of zealous fans were seated near the front of the audience and he made regular references to the many times he’d clearly encountered them all before in another familiar Belfast hostelry, the Errigle Inn, Russel’s more regular stomping ground. During Up in the Old Hotel which is the opening track of the new album Folk Hotel, he cites the last words of Dylan Thomas and Thomas’s wife’s retort; “And you could hear his wife Caitlin screaming all the way from Wales, ‘Is that bastard of a man dead yet? Up in your old hotel?’” The wives of Belfast we are told, would never say such a thing! Nor would you hear that kind of language in the Errigle!
As an additional treat for us all, by his side throughout the evening was the renowned guitarist Max de Bernardi, accompanying him through many fan favourites including a couple of tracks from the 2015 album Rose of Roscrae. Hair Trigger Heart is a real crowd pleaser and the rousing chorus had the audience – composed of men in the majority – singing their little cowboy hearts out.
Arguably his best-known song Guadalupe was next, and he tells us it’s his own favourite of all the songs he’s written. Inspired by a visit to one of Mexico’s most revered shrines, it contains some of Russell’s more confessional lyrics; “I am the least of all your pilgrims here, I am most in need of hope”. De Bernardi’s intricate Spanish guitar stylings were beautifully impressive and there was a huge reaction to this much-loved song.
Leaving el Paso, also from the new album, is Russell’s account of the toll that the drug war took on the city where he’d lived with his wife for several years. The day she looked out the window and saw pit bulls running loose, they decided it was time to get out of there, and this song was born.
One highlight of the night for me was Rise Again Handsome Johnny, a narrative song detailing Russell’s feelings about the Kennedy assassination in ’63. A montage of snapshots and memories, it included all the images we associate with the legendary president; the book depository, Lee Harvey Oswald and the “ratty-tat-tat” of Jack Ruby’s gun. Perhaps more poignant in light of the current political climate in the USA, the chorus “Rise again, Handsome Johnny, rise again, This country could use a few good men”, certainly struck a chord.
The Last Time I Saw Hank is a surreal retelling of a dream that he had in which he encountered Hank Williams, George Jones, Jesus, Simon of Cyrene and his own father in turn. “I’m like Townes Van Zandt”, he told us, “I don’t even try to make sense anymore.” He also shared the amusing story of how in the dream, sitting next to George Jones in the front seat of his car, he turned to him and said “Look, a shooting star”, before a beer bottle smashed through his windscreen.
In a song dedicated to Dylan Thomas, Sparrow of Swansea, Russell co-wrote with Katy Moffat and until recently he had not recorded the song himself. He confessed to feeling guilty at having invented the names of the pubs listed, so when years later a book was published entitled Dylan Thomas: The Pubs, he took the chance to re-write the lyrics to make the names authentic and to include part of a refrain that Thomas had written for his father. It’s a beautiful song, if distinctly redolent of Ralph McTell’s Streets of London.
A “cowboy song” he told us, would bring us to the interval. With whoops and cheers and whistles from all the wannabe cowboys in the crowd, Tonight we Ride was a big hit. Russell knows how to bring his audience along with him, and his fans love his hilarious lyrics like the protagonist in this song who on a visit to a whorehouse declared he’d, “leave my teeth there in a jar, You don’t need no teeth for kissin’ gals or smokin’ cheap cigars”. Changing the lyric from “The people of Columbus” to “the people of old Belfast” also elicited a huge cheer, even though in the next breath he told us that tomorrow night it would be “The people of Portstewart”.
Returning to his history with our city, All on a Belfast Morning was inspired by a day spent here with his wife. Having gone for a walk along the quay early in the morning, by eight in the evening they had visited all of its greatest pubs. He specifically mentioned The Crown and its beautiful tile; of which he got an excellent close-up view when his face hit the floor.
The second half of the set was peppered with cowboy songs and stories and showbizzy tales of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Johnny Cash and the great Canadian Cowboy singer and Russell’s self-professed greatest influence, Ian Tyson.
One notable exception was Finding You, the song inspired by his wife Nadine. “Occasionally I write a love song in between all the chicken fighting songs”. The lyrics were a little schmaltzy for my taste, including lines such as, “And blessed are the troubadours, Who handed me the feather, Who taught me how to write the songs, That brought us both together”, the songs which he considered responsible “For the miracle of miracles, The one that changed my life, Finding You”. However, the sentiment was unmistakably sincere and de Bernardi’s slide guitar was simply stunning.
One of de Bernardi’s own songs was also included and he took the vocal lead with his authentically bluesy voice and received one of the biggest rounds of applause of the night.
Saving some of his best for last, the very topical and seemingly prophetic Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall went down a storm. As did Navajo Rug, and with the strains of “Aye, aye, aye Katie” ringing in my ears, I left the Clayton happy, with my copy of the beautiful book of Russell’s own artwork clutched under my arm.
On a night when Belfast had a diverse selection of events to choose from, with Swedish rock band Opeth in the Limelight and The Killers in the SSE, I am glad I opted for this evening of music and storytelling from an artist who’d long been recommended to me by friends as one of the most entertaining live performers in the business.