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Monday, April 15, 2013

Ramblin’ Man

From the Vault Dept.: Sad to say, I missed Tom Paxton’s performance in Schenectady last Saturday. I chose instead to attend the monthly get-together of like-minded folk that’s been going on in my community for over a decade, a pot-luck supper and songfest – although I did use the opportunity to foist a bunch of Paxton songs upon the assemblage. Here’s a review I wrote of a pair of concerts he performed in this area nearly a decade ago.


FOR OVER 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.

Eric Weissberg and Tom Paxton
Photo by Chuck Morse
For the kids, his afternoon show was an hour-long 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 an 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 folksong 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, but he was given the spotlight for a turn on the banjo – he’s an amazing virtuoso – to recreate 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’s “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.

Tom Paxton with Eric Weissberg
The Egg, Jan. 10

Metroland Magazine, 15 January 2004

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