Tom Paxton @ The Lowry

Starting off the evening on a friendly, yet highly entertaining and educational high was singer-songwriter Robin Bullock who also happens to be an avid folk musicologist of sorts. With a Scottish-American background (similar to Julianne Moore, Andie MacDowell), Robin Bullock has an acute awareness of and sensitivity towards the inter-connection between US folk and its Celtic heritage and immediately demonstrated this by performing the lovely ‘Voyage’, originally an Irish harp tune and some three hundred years old. This was a delicate and indeed most soulful of numbers. An adaptation of a traditional Scottish folk song, ‘Love is like a red, red rose’, struck a chord with the appreciate audience and a melancholic song in tone. An all too brief set which this writer would like to have heard more of (and one suspects the rest of the audience too), especially the genesis of the songs, the singer then introduced the main act and raison d’être for our coming.

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Gosling

‘And now for the main event. The person you are here for’. No guessing as to who this was going to be and Tom Paxton emerged on stage, in crimson shirt and black cap looking every bit the bona fide and original folk musician of the 1960s. This year marks fiftieth anniversary of Tom’s first ever UK tour way back in 1965, and as Robin Bullock was quick to point out. he was a mere one years old (this writer an infinitely older two year old and as a five year old became familiar with Tom’s ‘Goin’ to the zoo’ alongside Marvin Gaye’s ‘I heard it through the grapevine’. The Dubliners would have to wait another couple of years).

Tom Paxton’s list of musical honours is impressive to say the least and arguably only a Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington could begin to compete in terms of longevity. His personal favourite award is from his home state, the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame and you might be able to remove the boy from Oklahoma, but you sure as hell cannot take the Oklahoma out of the boy and that is precisely how it should be. Paxton is that most gifted of communicators in a Bill Clinton kind of way in that he instinctively knows how to make you feel at home all the while acutely aware of what he is seeking to achieve and where he is progressing to next. A nod to the Civil Rights era and his commitment towards was referred to early on in the performance with a song devoted to the march on Selma (an anniversary commemorated by no less than the President himself in recent times) and into the song was inserted his close friend and folk associate Pete Seeger’s ode, ‘We shall overcome’.

Tom now had the crowd in the palm of his hand: ‘Great to be back in the flowery Lowry!’, which might just serve as the inspiration for a future song, but was a clear indication that Tom was feeling very much at home and even familiarising himself with the nuances of cricket. Humour featured in the evening’s entertainment and a rendition of ‘Battle of the sexes’, though underlying it all was a genuine commitment towards equality for women, one of many platforms that Tom Paxton has wholeheartedly espoused over the decades. Another cause Tom has sought to showcase is cleaning up the environment and was such venture was the Clearwater Festival to reclaim the Hudson River in New York. Pete and Peggy Seeger were at the forefront of this enterprise and now Tom Paxton will end this summer with a performance at the reclaimed music stage directly next to the river itself.

From a purely musical perspective what made the evening so enjoyable was that the collective harmonies of the two singers combined beautifully and, where Tom Paxton might no longer be able to hit the highest notes like before, Robin Bullock was fully capable of compensating. Nonetheless, Tom Paxton’s melodicism remains fully intact and at the venerable age of seventy-eight that is no mean feat. Even Dylan’s voice has shifted over time and no-one would dare accuse would dare accuse him of being in any way over the hill. Similarly, Tom Paxton has managed to keep his voice sounding fresh sounding, and while the songs have been performed on numerous occasions, the songs have never sounded stale, or churned out. In all likelihood, the impending retirement has reinvigorated Tom and he is visibly enjoying being on stage once again. Tom’s deeper tone compliments Robin’s slightly higher and more nasal one to perfection. Historically, one can think of the Louvin Brothers and more recently the pairing of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings as examples of close harmonies and of course the Everly Brothers perfected their own individual voices in the world of pop.

Philosophizing seems to be an integral part of Tom Paxton’s musical life and on occasion he was keen to draw attention to certain facets of the human character: ‘There are two kinds of people. We’re all in this together [though shrewd enough to make a clear distinction with politicians who use this mantra] and those whose guiding principle is ‘You’re on your own’ [the Katie Hopkins approach to life one might say]. Tom Paxton’s response was swift and decisive: ‘I’m pretty sure which side I’m on’. This led on to a message-laden ditty, the title of which speaks volumes and is never more prescient than in these still difficult economic and financial times: ‘If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I. The social message does not require further comment, but what did take the audience by surprise was that Tom then launched into his very own rap followed in quick succession by a folk-blues style guitar solo from Robin Bullock. A fantastic way to end what one of the evening’s most memorable songs. The first half of the evening ended on a high as Tom explained that one son g had been especially popular in France, so much so that new lyrics in the language of Molière had been specifically composed and Tom sang a few verses before inviting the audience to join in to hilarious laughs.

A lengthy guitar solo greeted the audience for the second half before Tom stepped up on vocals with a repetitive, yet utterly infectious number, ‘Come away with me’. For this particular song the audience could and did sing along and it has been stated that this is a mightily loyal public many of whom had heard Tom back in the 1960s. The close harmonies of Bullock and Paxton made this a truly memorable one.

Drawing on literary inspirations, Tom quoted Emily Dickinson’s ‘How to make a prairie’ as the lead in to another song before it was time for some more social commentary and a tribute to the late great folk-blues singer, Mississippi John Hurt. Tom first encountered Mississippi John at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival which also marked Tom’s own debut appearance there. The two would renew acquaintances in New York at the legendary Gaslight Café venue and Tom spent a few minutes expounding upon what a privilege it had been to be able to see and hear Hurt on a nightly basis. A song in tribute, ‘Mr Candy man’, was a fitting homage to the man from Mississippi.

The scene was now set for a most heartfelt of tributes to a seminal figure in the 1960s folk scene and a direct inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ film, ‘Inside Llewelyn Davis’, and a man who was so close to Tom Paxton that he served as best man at Tom’s own wedding. Dave Van Ronk was that man and he was affectionately known as the ‘Mayor of MacDougall Street’, which also happens to be the title of a highly recommended and intensely readable autobiography. Tom chose to chronicle Dave’s life with ‘The mayor of MacDougall Street plays the blues’ and Van Ronk was a slightly older figure than the other contemporaries of the era including a fledgling singer by the name of Bob Dylan. Rumour has it that he went on to bigger things.

There followed a well received ode, not to an individual or cause, but to the island of Ireland that has long inspired and enchanted folk singers and has a fabulous tradition all of its own. Indeed Tom has been touring throughout that island as part of his last ever UK/Ireland tour this year, culminating at the Lowry. This was to be a gentle number that name checked the fine counties of Donegal and Galway and this went down a treat in a city that lives, breathes and eats all things Irish. Concluding the main part of the evening’s music came two anthems to the folk tradition that Tom Paxton is revered for. The first, ‘Last thing on my mind’ sounded as fresh as a daisy while the second, ‘Ramblin’ Boy’ was equally delightful and is the title track of his debut album for Elektra and the one the catapulted him to national and international recognition and was sung in its entirety by the audience so loved is it by his admiring public.

A first standing ovation followed, with Tom returning to the stage and uttering, ‘I’m glad you did that’. Tom then went on to thank Robin Bullock for a wonderful job and both the audience and this writer would certainly echo that. He is worthy of listening to in his own right and hopefully, in the not too distant future, will be the leader of his own UK tour.

The mood grew temporarily a tad sombre as Tom devoted the first of three encore songs to the three hundred and forty-three fire fighter victims of 9/11. It takes a great deal of skill and tact to even approach this subject matter, but to then turn it into a melodic song requires an awful lot of talent and Tom pulled it off with aplomb. A second song lightened the atmosphere somewhat and focused on a happier side of New York life, a city with which Tom enjoys a close and personal relationship and where the nocturnal café scene served as the location for Tom to learn and hone his singer-songwriting craft in the early-mid 1960s. This afforded Tom the opportunity to reflect on those who are no longer with us: ‘I am missing friends tonight’ and it was a heartfelt statement at that.

After a final song, Tom Paxton declared, ‘Instead of good night, its goodbye. This is the last concert on the last tour’. While a final leg will occur in July-August in the United States, this is the ultimate stage of Tom’s live performance career. Thus the evening and final epitaph to his glittering career came to an end on a melancholic, yet still triumphant note with ‘Sweet Redemption Road’. What a career! What a committed artist! What a singer and songwriter! His influence will be an indelible one for many decades to come. Enjoy your retirement Tom!

Tim Stenhouse