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He knows the way: Tom Paxton at the Egg. Photo: John Whipple

The Marvelous Tom
By B.A. Nilsson

Tom Paxton with Eric Weissberg
The Egg, Jan. 10

FFOR More than 40 years, Tom Paxton has cultivated three different songwriting identities. He has written ballads so perfect and poignant that they seem to always have been around. His topical songs crackle with wit and righteous anger. And then he can turn around and write children’s songs just as timeless and appealing as the ballads.

All three identities were displayed at the Egg last Saturday, along with a fourth compelling aspect of his talent: Paxton’s appeal as a performer.

For the kids, his afternoon show was an hourlong journey through realms of the child’s imagination, much of it centered around the zoo: “Goin’ to the Zoo,” of course, from his very first recording (on the Gaslight label), and portraits of animals like “Allen Gator” and the fish who live “At the ’Quarium.” Kids are kinetic listeners, so Paxton encouraged (and choreographed) hand and arm movements to go with the songs. “The Marvelous Toy” is so much of a standard that it’s a treat to be reminded that Paxton actually wrote it (while a soldier at Fort Dix, no less).

He also paid tribute to Pete Seeger by telling the story “Abiyoyo” and to Woody Guthrie by closing the performance with a sing-along to “This Land Is Your Land,” with an enthusiastic audience that also knew the words to the verses.

For the evening show, Paxton was joined by longtime friend Eric Weissberg on guitar and banjo, kicking off with “Bottle of Wine” before convulsing the crowd with a selection of “Short Shelf-Life Songs,” those numbers that cock a snoot at current events.

“Much of the folk song tradition deals with criminal behavior,” said Paxton, “so here’s one about the election in Florida.” He also skewered John Ashcroft and “The Spirit of Justice,” and limned a scenario in which Tom Ridge and his Homeland Security forces are looking for those elusive weapons at Paxton’s house.

A poignant change of pace came with “On the Road from Srebrenica,” which detailed a horrifying slice of that tragedy and foreshadowed the skill and sensitivity Paxton brought to his song about the firefighters who died in the collapsing World Trade Center. In fact, his song “The Bravest” (which began the concert’s second half) prompted a tribute from the International Association of Firefighters, an appreciation presented in a ceremony just after the intermission.

A quiet Weissberg added skillful guitar backing to Paxton’s own playing, joining in an occasional chorus harmony, and he was given the spotlight for a turn on the banjo—he’s an amazing virtuoso—to re-create his big hit, “Dueling Banjos” from the film Deliverance, with Paxton just managing to keep up on guitar.

The audience sang along with the chorus of a recent number, “My Pony Knows the Way,” from Paxton’s Grammy-nominated latest recording, Looking for the Moon. Veering from the heartbreaking to the hilarious is a challenge, but Paxton puts together sets of wonderful complexity, using a song like “My Favorite Spring,” a father’s tribute to baseball, as a bridge.

He dedicated “Did You Hear John Hurt?” to the memory of Dave Van Ronk, and saluted Phil Ochs not with his own song, “Phil,” but with Ochs’ “There but for Fortune.” And the long-married Paxton also sang a song for his wife, Midge, who was in the audience: “Me and a Couple of Angels.”

You know the concert is nearing its end when the classics come out: “The Last Thing on My Mind,” of course, including a parody lyric someone found on the Internet, and “Rambling Boy,” with Weissberg on slide guitar. And there’s no better—and more meaningful—finish than the simple “Peace Will Come,” for which the audience was given section parts, a privilege only awarded the better audiences.

Stars of Rockabilly

Elvis Birthday Bash: The Lustre Kings, Johnny Rabb and guests
Savannah’s, Jan. 9

Albany is in the middle of a rock & roll renaissance. Believe it. And despite an arctic chill of biblical proportions out on Pearl Street, there was a warm golden glow at the deep end of Savannah’s last Friday night as rock & roll institution Johnny Rabb, head Lustre King Mark Gamsjager, young guitar phenom Graham Tichy, a rock-solid rhythm section and a host of guests lit things up for what would have been Elvis’ 69th.

True to the rockabilly spirit, the players primarily hung close to those raw early years when Elvis carved out an archetype at the crossroads between country-western and rhythm & blues, gobsmacking racial expectations. This ain’t your mother’s Elvis—your kitschy, nanner-butter- chomping, TV-shooting, jumpsuit-wearing Elvis—this is the primordial Sun Studios choogle of “Mystery Train” and the rabid, shack-raised kid with his mouth slung open on the cover of that first RCA album (the cover the Clash nicked for London Calling).

The performance was primarily a tribute to the years before we lost Elvis in the clouds of iconography—and there’s no other group of players I’d rather see throwing down a ghost-resurrecting dust-up. Three songs in, smack dab in the middle of “Mean Woman Blues,” they were already deep in the pocket, Tichy ripping glistening silvertones from his Telecaster and Gamsjager flat gettin’ it done on both guitar and vocals. In the middle of “Baby Let’s Play House,” Tichy took a few bars, then gunned things over with a nod to Gamsjager, who nailed it home with his own stabbing, bright notes.

The guitar-slinging interplay between the two was a highlight, as was the whole group’s ability to capture the rugged, irrepressible joy of early rock & roll. That feeling eventually got into enough people’s bones to keep the dance floor hopping. Rabb—ageless, rock-star thin, decked out in a red blazer and Colonel Sanders tie, his and Gamsjager’s pompadours practically scraping the ceiling tiles—was in amazing throat during this, his 20th Elvis Bash. Rabb particularly shone on “Just Because” and a wheeling, soulful send-up of “Suspicious Minds” that propelled the packed crowd into dance-frenzied, sing-along euphoria.

A whole slew of guests helped out, including a rousing turn from Graham’s dad John Tichy, former Commander Cody member and longtime RPI scholar of really complicated engineering stuff. (“Push, push!” he gleefully chided Graham during a solo.) Afterward, a casually clothed Eddie Angel, of internationally renowned, mask-wearing surf & rollers Los Straitjackets, strapped Gamsjager’s Gretsch on over his fleece and riveted the crowd with some guest guitar on tunes like “Viva Las Vegas” and “Just Because.” The unmasked, Black Irish-handsome Angel has to be one of the better looking guys to ever wear a mask for a living. (Interesting note: The Albany native has played with quintessential Morrissey sideman Boz Boorer and, more importantly, Eddy Clearwater and Los Straitjackets’ Rock N’ Roll City is up for a Grammy.)

A third set brought even more guests out, including bassist Don Dworkin of Doc Scanlon’s rhythm boys and young Rocky Velvet lead singer Ian Carlton. All said, it was an unbelievably fun night of rock & roll. Handed down through the years, the songs themselves are ruggedly simple, few-chorded templates, but not many can breathe life into the tunes the way these players do. It takes extraordinary feel, talent and a spontaneous sunburst of chemistry to be able to consistently revitalize the form. And when it’s right, you can feel it. Gamsjager, Rabb and co. sent a mighty good one up to Big E this night.

—Erik Hage

I Saw It With My Own Ears

The Victor Wooten Band
The Egg, Jan. 11

“We’re gonna take you on a lttle journey,” said the good Martian Victor Wooten after a prolonged “Yo Victa!” introduction from percussionist J.D. “The Groove Regulator” Blair and drummer Derico Watson. “It’s the scenic view, so it may get a little bumpy at times . . . but we promise to keep you safe.”

To be sure, the Wooten dovecote, represented at the Egg by the band’s namesake, guitarist Regi and keyboardist Joseph, could never truly be charged with making “safe” music, but there seemed to be a mutual trust among the sold-out crowd of jazz aficionados, bass weenies and deadheads that cast all care of that fact to the fartwinds in favor of this overwhelming chicken kegger soup for the soul. I have diagnosed the family-based act with “arpeggiosis,” a malady they suffer lightly, happily deconstructing all conventional methodology in favor of some kind of close encounter with their rather undocumented phrasing and atmospheric verbiage.

The Wootens are so adept, in fact, that they have actually transcended the perceived physical capabilities of their instruments, making noises they are not supposed to be making, to the point where a crossing of the senses occurs. Timothy Leary, borrowing a phrase from John Locke, called this sensory swap synesthesia, a literal hearing of colors and seeing of sounds. Granted, he was on cross amounts of LSD much of his life, but Vic and company’s funk and soul shimmer with the same intense collusion of color and texture as did the good doctor’s fiery eyes in the frying pan of Haight-Ashbury. The Roland synth sounded like a guitar. The guitar sounded like the drums, the drums sounded like the bass. It was all very weird. In a good way.

Wooten has said much about the language of music, and “Pentagon Square,” a mantic finger popper in 5/4 (get it?) was our first real taste of this intransigent brand of mathematics, but the birthwater truly broke for good when the bandleader stopped the intro to “If You Want Me to Stay” and asked the audience to call out a random number, which the band then adopted for a new time signature, but only for specific portions of the song. “Only a white guy would think of 11,” my wife whispered into my ear, but they made it look so easy, like an afterthought, a casual booger flick on your morning commute. Good Charlotte could never do this.

Despite the band’s jaw-dropping competence, they just had fun with it. Regi shimmied about with a top hat and lime-green feather boa, the uncut strings from his orange death-metal guitar splaying dangerously in all directions. Watson chewed and snapped his bubblegum all night while walloping the skins, and rap diva MC Divinity hollered goodwill and sweet praises into the crowd as if celebration were less a sport than a magnanimous and specific birthright. Not long into the three-and-a-half-hour set, each member shone in the spotlight, baby brother Joseph tweeking his Roland synth with his Theremin antenna and voice box, JD with his hibachi chef stickwork and both Divinity and bass tech Anthony Wellington using the onstage Fodera bass arsenal to get down hard and fast. Of course the man himself eventually emerged into the spotlight and did what Bela Fleck fans expected him to do, which was scratch, thump and pummel them into a vast solar system far from here with incalculable exercises in studious and perfectly timed perpetuity.

The real treat, however, was the curiously unsigned brother Regi, who thanked his younger brother for “getting him out of the house” this winter before weaving a tornado of technical ecstasy that would have made Mozart himself look like a short-bus candidate. Why, the guitar had turned into a Geiger counter and he, the stunned scientist. Grown men wept openly in the shadows of the theater like captured soldiers, their women writhing with some strange new tingling sensation they didn’t quite understand, but furtively made notes to gather more information later. Between explosive sorties, he whipped through a medley that accessed the Hendrix version of “Star Spangled Banner,” James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Oddly enough, this selection got one of the biggest audience responses of the evening. You find Sabbath fans in the strangest places, I tell you.

Like all good poetry, these are very complex musical ideas delivered in a very simple manner. That is, until you have to transcribe it. I was stricken mostly by the Wooten attempt to solve the classic linguistic dilemma of the limitations of human vocabulary, of saying what cannot physically be said through music. They come damn close, closer than many.

—Bill Ketzer

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