Why Ryan Adams and not Tom Russell? Why Tori Amos, not Ani Difranco? Why Elbow and not Witness? Why Laura Marling , not Thea Gilmore? Why Billy Bragg and not Robb Johnson?
   I could go on and on, a long list of those you've made it and those who haven't .
   For some there are obvious explanations, but relative talent isn't one. In the case of Witness, who released only two excellent albums in 1999 and 2001, they were dropped by their record company. Musically more adventurous and melodically more varied than Elbow, by rights they should've matched the Bury boys.
   Ani Difranco from New Orleans still produces vital and interesting albums, but hasn't sustained the edginess of her earlier work. She has always been fiercely independent, a socialist feminist unafraid to voice her views, but equally assured writing about relationships.
   It's extraordinary how Thea Gilmore has continued to release brilliant albums, threatening to break through into the 'Mainstream' (a title of an earlier song), but never quite doing it. She is far more original and diverse than Marling, who is a pale imitation of Joni Mitchell for the most part.
   Likewise Robb Johnson, who has never compromised his ideals like Bragg. Johnson is unashamedly leftwing and represents the anarchist/ animal rights alternative to Billy Bragg's cosy liberal leftism. Just as importantly, he's a witty and eclectic songwriter, using styles from punk to reggae to township music.
   Tom Russell I'll come to later, but as with the others I remain preplexed by his relative obscurity.
   So why the ones and not the others, especially as they can claim to be far more challenging musically and lyrically.
   Well, in most cases the explanation could arise from just that : there's an uncompromising stance, a desire never to kow-tow to the pressures and fashions of the music industry.
   But there's also the lack of a single fortuitous break: one song, one DJ or (dare I say it! ) one celebrity willing to take up their cause. Stephen Fry tweeted and raved about his favourite band at one stage, the Welsh group Toy Horses. I chased them up only to find a rather ordinary harmony band, a cross between Beatles balladry and Simon and Garfunkel. It only made me want to reach for the originals.
  In the case of Tom Russell, he has had many fine American singer-songwriters praising him and a eulogy from Beat poet Lawrence Ferlingetti, but hardly a recipe for wide recognition.
   Three weeks ago, when I was off to St. David's Hall Level 3 to see him in concert, the general reaction was  -  'Who?'
   Yet even as, album by album, Ryan turns into Bryan Adams and seems to have little to say, Russell's songs are always full of fascinating narratives and a deep sense of places.
   Ryan Adams, notably with 'Heartbreaker', rode on the early Noughties desire for Americana which the magazine 'Uncut' embraced fully. Yet on free 'Uncut' cds of that time are as many tracks by Russell as Adams.
   But Russell, like Dave Alvin ( who co-wrote some songs with him) wasn't the young good-looker who'd been in a band like Whiskeytown, rightly hailed as the best of that genre along with Wilco. He hadn't released an album about the traumas of a break-up.
   Instead, Russell's career goes back to the 70's and centres around songs about the way the Japanese were maltreated during the 2nd World War ('Manzanar'), an American Indian in prison ('Blue Wing') and the connection between Mexican immigrants and the risks of love ('Stealing Electricity').
   For me, Russell has been the John Steinbeck of American singer-songwriters, championing the oppressed and downtrodden ; he has had a special affinity with Mexico and often breaks out into Spanish in his gigs.
   From the responses of 'Who?' I expected few there. Yet Level 3 was packed. Were they all just regulars at the 'Roots Unearthed' series, or actual Russell fans?
   It turned out there were a lot more afficionados than anticipated. Above all, it was so fitting and enjoyable to go to the gig with the Bartzman, who introduced me to Russell in the first place with one of his famous compilation cassettes.
   Having said that, I was very wary. His latest cd 'Mesabi' isn't his best by a long way and contains a few songs which suffer the Adams factor. It's also rather samey thematically, with too many songs about fading, self-destroyed or forgotten movie stars.
   Musically it's too similar to its far superior predecessor 'Blood and Candle Smoke', with members of Calexico contributing backing vocals and mariachi horns.
   I needn't have worried one bit. Despite featuring many songs from 'Mesabi' in his first set ( the second was a selection from his long career), Russell's consummate stage performance raised the whole event : every song so much better than the album simply accompanied by the superb acoustic guitarist Thad Beckman, who often played Spanish/Mexican backing to great effect.
   Russell boldly began with his inspiration, a version of Dylan's 'Hard Rain' and then took us on the kind of narrative which is distinctive to his songs.
   His rapport with the audience was wonderful : from the moment he yelled out 'Bastard!' at a heckler (learnt in Belfast), to gibes about Seattle singer-songwriters with their falsettos and his digs at Ryan Adams........yes, it was he who drew the comparison with Bryan!
   He took us all the way from his hometown of L.A to El Paso on the Mexican border, where he now lives. He told us about singing 'Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?' ( about Mexican slave labour) in Tennessee, when the stage was attacked by off-duty militiamen wearing Sarah Palin stickers!
   Like no other N.American singer-songwriter, Russell is imbued with a sense of place and people.
   If the 'Guardian' Guide had bothered to turn up to one his concerts, then they'd never have described him as a troubadour with a 'simmering career'.
   There were so many classic songs and just as many he didn't sing that night, like 'Van Ronk' a spoken narrative about an unsung hero of the Greenwich Village music scene; a highly moving tribute.
   So why Ryan Adams and not Tom Russell?
   The Bartzman reckoned you could never come up with a single picture of Russell : he's a cowboy, a balladeer, a story-teller, a protest singer and, occasionally, a chronicler of foreign climes such as Africa, Norway and Canada.
   When he finished with 'Tonight we Ride' and included the plains of Cardiff and deserts of Norwich ( his next venue) in the song, we laughed and sang along.
   It was one of the most memorable gigs ever and next time, hopefully he'll be playing in the 'Big Hall' (as he dubbed it) and Spillers will stock his cds.

   This is a poem in memory of an ex-pupil who died recently and who loved music as much as me.

                                       IN MEMREE OF TOILET

Don' know why they called im that.
Not sif ee always ad a chain
danglin round is neck,
not sif ee wuz boggin.

I jest remember im, Beatles mad
an on about McCartney an Lennon
an George Arrison's great songs
ee said woz underrrated.

Ewsed t see im down town buskin
an ee could always be relied on
to supply mega lush weed ;
often ad a tidee girlfren with im.

With is long black air
an later a moush, yew'd swear
ee wuz part of a Beatles tribute.
One of-a many oo shoulda made it.

F'r-a time ee wuz livin
in-a Teepee village over by Carmarthen,
another ee seemed t be sortin
loadsa stuff f'r the Green Man.

I carn forget the fight ee ad
in class with Crumpy oo wuz inta Elvis,
it wuz all about mewsic, oo woz best :
don' think anybuddy lost.

Toilet. Eart-attack! So young
it don' seem right :
I'll play a song an think of im;
it's gotta be 'Blackbird singin in the dead o night'.


Harry Rogers
04/22/2012 06:24

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05/17/2014 05:52

Mine too :)

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09/15/2014 03:09

Pretty obvious, because Ryan is 10x cooler than Tom :-)))


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