Thursday night, Ms. Geranium and I went out to see Tom Russell at the Café Montmartre (or The Momo, as locals like to call it, although, since "Monmartre" pronounced with a midwestern accent sounds quite a bit like "Muammar" pronounced with a midwestern aceent, it gives me pleasure to call it The Café Qadaffi). I had never heard of Tom Russell until about a week before he came to Madison. Ms. Geranium showed me a YouTube video which piqued my interest. His song "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?" won song of the year from the Folk Alliance in February of 2008.
The Café Qadaffi is a pretty small venue but we somehow ended up with front row seats. Mr. Russell proved to be a very engaging performer. His songs are well crafted and he played them with the comfortable manner that seems to be the sole property of seasoned performers. He doesn't have what most people would call a "good" voice (opera definitely would not be a wise career choice), but it has a richness and character that I like. He razzed the audience, promoter and opening musician quite a bit, but in a friendly way (after a recent tour of Ireland, he seems to enjoy using the word "bastards." A lot. Even in Spanish.) He was on the receiving end of some friendly heckling, in turn. (I had nothing to do with it. Promise.)
Accompanying Mr. Russell on guitar, mandolin and backing vocals was Michael Martin. I really enjoyed Mr. Martin's playing. He had this weird right hand thing going on when he was playing guitar - he used a flat pick and played finger-style as well, frequently switching back and forth many times during the course of a song. While playing finger-style he would tuck the pick in his hand - he could make the pick disappear and reappear with the flick of a finger like a magician dong a coin trick. It was more than just a nifty gimmick, since it gave him the ability to use a wide variety of tones without interrupting the flow of his playing. Regardless, he is a technically proficient player who makes use of his technique in a very musical fashion.
Madison native Blake Thomas opened the show. I thought his songs were good, he had a nice voice and played well. It's an unfortunate fact of life that the opener is often overlooked, since the reason most people show up is to see the headliner.
The audio and video quality of the following clip "El Gallo del Cielo" is rather poor and it only has part of the song, but it's the only version I can find of this song with Michael Martin playing on it. It's one of those epic, tragic songs to which I'm always drawn. It must be a flaw in my character, but I love those kinds of songs. There is a version of the song in its entirety on YouTube, but it doesn't have Michael Martin playing on it. Don't get me wrong - Andrew Hardin (who has played with Tom Russell quite a bit in past years) is a spectacular guitarist, but, for my tastes, Michael Martin is stylistically a better match for Mr. Russell's songs.