Tom Rush,
Celebrates 50 Years of Music
(Appleseed, 2013)

In the early 1960s, Tom Rush rose to prominence on the Cambridge/Boston folk scene, alongside such still-active notables as Joan Baez, Maria Muldaur, Geoff Muldaur, Jim Kweskin and Jim Rooney. Though never a household name in the larger culture, he gets name-checked whenever more famous performers -- James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks, even the Irish rock band U2 -- are mentioning artists who influenced them. On the 1968 Elektra album The Circle Game, Rush "discovered" Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, and so launched the singer-songwriter era. Recited ritually in any discussion of Rush, this is a unique career history familiar even to those only dimly conscious of his music.

My first Rush album, purchased soon after it was released, was Circle. It led me to work my way backward to his two previous Elektra discs, and then to Prestige LPs before those. Subsequently, though folk had faded as a mass-audience phenomenon and a newly reinvigorated rock was crowding out competing varieties of popular music, Rush released a handful of folk-flavored Columbia albums in the 1970s. Of these, the first two, Tom Rush and Wrong End of the Rainbow (both issued in 1970), are enduring classics, even now -- as I can attest after a recent hearing -- as pleasure-evoking as they were then.

Tom Rush Celebrates 50 Years of Music is his second release on the Pennsylvania-based folk-revival label Appleseed, after years of maintaining career visibility solely by touring and marketing self-released discs. I thought his previous Appleseed outing (What I Know; I reviewed it here on 21 March 2009), while not bad, was something of a disappointment, lacking the consistently stellar song choices that underscore much of Rush's critical reputation. I happily report that's no problem on the new release. Live, recorded at Boston Symphony Hall on Dec. 28, 2012, it showcases some of the most beloved songs in Rush's repertoire.

An immensely gifted musician to start with, Rush has been doing most of these songs for a very long time, and over the years they've acquired ever more depth and resonance. On the current project he's assembled an exemplary band (which you can watch as its members play and crack wise on the accompanying concert DVD) to accompany him. They tackle the likes of David Wiffen's "Drivin' Wheel," Sleepy John Estes's "Drop Down Mama," tradition's "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm," Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" and Murray McLauchlan's still almost frighteningly affecting "Child's Song." There is also a medley of Rush's two originals from Circle, the melancholy, often-covered "No Regrets" along with the atmospheric guitar instrumental "Rockport Sunday."

Several guests share the stage. David Bromberg steps forward to do Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues," albeit not in the version Rush himself laid down on 1966's Take a Little Walk With Me. Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops delivers a good-natured, banjo-driven reading of Papa Charlie Jackson's boast "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine." Folk-pop stalwart Jonathan Edwards revives Chet Powers' "Get Together," which is sort of the hippie "We Shall Overcome." I hope never to grow so jaded as not to be touched by its sentiments. As another songwriter once asked, what's so funny about peace, love and understanding? Rush's old pals Buskin & Batteau contribute a couple of self-composed songs, including (on the DVD) the cheerfully self-mocking "Jews Don't Camp."

Basically, all efforts at a pretense of cool critical distance aside, I'll just be open about this: I love both the album and the DVD. If you're already a Tom Rush fan, I don't have to tell you what to expect. If you aren't, however, it needs to be said that he's singing as fine as ever and is in prime artistic shape. In other words, this isn't just nostalgia. The songs don't feel dated in the slightest. This is magnificently written, interpreted and performed modern folk music, and it's destined, I am sure, for the even longer haul.

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 September 2013

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