One-man folk festival
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., February 22, 2004) – Boasting the stylistic breadth of a one-man folk festival, venerable folksinger Tom Rush entertained a sold-out crowd at the Berkshire Museum on Saturday night with tastes of traditional and original folk, blues, country, topical, novelty songs and more. Rush even dipped his toe into some soul, rock ‘n’ roll and new-age music, and told plenty of stories and jokes.

There’s plenty to be said in favor of an old-fashioned variety act, and Rush had more than a touch of the vaudevillian about him. He had command of his material and command of the stage as well as command of his instrument at hand, and most of the time his voice did what he asked it to do.

More than anything, Rush seemed to know what his audience wanted – perhaps even better than they did – and he delivered a well-paced show that alternated dark and light, happy and sad, fast and slow, funny and serious, and old and new, in just the right proportions so that the show never dragged and the seams rarely showed.

Highlights included “A Cowboy’s Paean to a Coyote,” a comic parody of the hunter’s mentality, one of several numbers that grew naturally out of Rush’s banter about living as a New Englander transplanted to Wyoming. He was at his most dynamic on several blues numbers, including one by Sleepy John Estes and another by Bukka White, a train song that showcased his not inconsiderable guitar technique, as he wrestled many train-like sounds out of his instrument. And “Old Blevins” by the Austin Lounge Lizards rarely fails to delight.

But Rush was hampered throughout the night by a weak, wavery voice that just wasn’t up to the task of singing his signature versions of ballads by Joni Mitchell including “The Circle Game” and “Urge for Going,” or a poorly-chosen version of Mentor Williams’s frequently-covered pop-soul hit, “Drift Away.” Instead of transporting the singer, as the song professes to do, it merely exposed the hollow shell of his voice and the empty bag of musical tricks that seemed to have been exhausted on his more tried-and-true material.

There was more than a faint whiff of “A Mighty Wind” to the entire proceedings, and to his credit, Rush himself seemed to acknowledge this in some personalized asides during “Old Blevins.” But little of that mattered to an audience that was in the palm of his hand from the get-go, a crowd that could crack up at the sound of him saying “yee-haw!” or at the mere mention of the name “Dick Cheney.” Since Rush lives in Jackson Hole, Wyo., he had plenty of occasions to do that. Lucky for him. Lucky for us?

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 24, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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