We are not much into nostalgia. And we aren’t groupies. But it was more than idle curiosity that drew us to Minneapolis last week to see and listen to the folk blues singing hero of our youth, Tom Rush.
Rush was, and still is the consummate story teller. We first saw him at The Riverboat in Toronto back in 1966. Back then, about 75 of us could cram into this little subterranean shotgun of a room on Yorkville Avenue, right beside a smoke shop called the Grab Bag. Admission, $3.00. If it wasn’t a busy night, you could stay for two sets, maybe all night. Drinks? You bet. Lemonade, cappuccino or mocha coffee. Smoke? Light ’em if you got ’em.
The Riverboat truly derailed my formal education. All of the new folk and blues singers started there: Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Jim Kweskin, Gord Lightfoot, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, Tim Hardin, Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Eric Anderson, Tom Rush…and I saw them all, prolonging my university stay.
But Tom Rush was the most memorable because of his ability to set up every song with a story. And the tunes themselves were stories, made epics by his delivery.
So it was exciting to see this guy again, even if he wasn’t mainstream billboard marquee candy.
The 20-something concierge at the hotel asked,
“So where you going tonight?”
“To see Tom Rush.”
“Cool, Rush. So, like, are they touring again?”
I took along his first album cover with the plan to get an autograph. But I changed my mind when I realized that I had bought it in 1965, 50 years ago.
To ask him to sign it now would be a cruel favor indeed.
When we entered the Dakotah Jazz Club on Nicolett Mall we also had an awakening. It’s comfortably small, hosting maybe 150 diners around a small stage.
But the diners were the warm bucket of water we did not see coming. They were old. With old gray pony tails, and walking sticks, and suspenders, and jean shirts, and earrings, and mustaches, and sandals.
That’s when it hit me. Pow. I’m old.
Just then Tom Rush came out on the stage. And he’s even older. Not the slim, young, booted guy strolling down the cobblestone lane we remembered. But still, to his credit, a slim older guy, with a full head of real, white hair. Rugged and ready.
He launched into one of his new songs, “It’s Gonna Get Hot Tonight” and never looked back. The voice was there, intact. His guitar work was perfect. And the stories flowed, all over again as the audience sat back to enjoy the ride.
What a treat. He knew us well, and played to our weakness: we’re all old. Or advancing anyway.
He smiles as he sets up The Remember Song. This is his talking blues about failing to recall names and faces, conquering wireless technology, and hooking up. True to the theme, he forgets where he’s at in the middle of it.
And we lap it up. Delicious.
When he finishes, he says, “That’s my hit song. It’s just a few clicks short of 7,000,000 on Youtube. My wife says, they’re all probably from the same guy. He can’t remember watching it.”
He covered a lot of his work that night, and it provoked me later to get out all our Tom Rush albums. Which gave me pause to think.
The tragedy of streaming music online is that we no longer have album covers to read. Used to be you’d put the needle on, and sit back and read the album backer, extracting every scintilla of detail about the artist. No more.
Our migration to smaller media and its packaging is the driver. In the 25-year generational shift to today, we traded in big vinyl records for 8 track, then cassettes, overtaken by CDs, which were displaced by downloads and Internet radio.
Along the way, we gave up the opportunity to read about our music.
Now we can listen to more and more of it, while we know less and less about it.
Fortunately, Tom Rush steers clear. He doesn’t play to massive concert audiences. He’s for small crowds, talks to them, and as a result, we come to know him and his music well.
Probably won’t forget it either.
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