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Music that just drives

Some are just born to have interesting lives. Take Tom Russell, for example.

Some are just born to have interesting lives. Take Tom Russell, for example. It would be impossible to contrive some of his life experiences, many of which will have fuelled his writing.

The Los Angeles-born songwriter/singer/guitarist - in the region this week to promote his 20th album - gained a university degree in criminology after high school, taught in Nigeria and travelled to Spain, Norway, Puerto Rico and Canada all in early adult life.

He honed his song-writing craft during this period, singing in the bars and strip clubs of Vancouver's skid row before moving to Texas.

It is the Lone Star state that he now calls home, in the border town of El Paso, but he still lives to travel as his frequent trips to Europe suggest.

It could, though, have all been so different! In 1979, Tom was tired of the music scene and living in New York. He had a wife and two young daughters to support so resorted to cab-driving to make a living.

One night he picked-up the Grateful Dead's lyricist, Robert Hunter. After exchanging musical chit-chat, Hunter gave Tom his guitar and Russell's rendition of his own song, Gallo Del Cielo (about a rooster !) made such a profound impression that Hunter was able to kick-start his music career.

I spoke to Tom this week and he takes up the tale: "I can't say that I was a Dead fan but Hunter was a literate and interesting guy.

"I liked him a lot but I've never run into him again to this day! It was certainly a turning point."

Tom is also the author of three books and he's published poems - he is a busy man.

"I'm pretty disciplined. I get jump-started with a few cups of coffee in the morning and write. I also sing for an hour a day," he says.

In the past, he has played venues all over Newcastle and is particularly fond of the region for its countryside and its vibe.

On those previous trips his long-time guitarist, Andrew Hardin, was usually by his side but there's now a new man in toe:

Michael Martin, who once fronted a Dylan- influenced band called the Infidels.

Martin, according to Tom, plays mandolin "like Ry Cooder or Yank Rachell (once partner to Sleepy John Estes), with a rocky edge to his playing. He also plays lead guitar".

Hardin was apparently undone by the constant travelling, compounded by health problems, but Russell appears to thrive on the road.

"I love travelling. The road breaks most people eventually but I'm going to drive myself this time. I like to have things under my own hands.

"I prefer the duo set-up because it is more mobile just two or three instruments."

Russell is no stranger to Europe either. His partner is Swiss and he has a strong following there.

"I could have a house in Europe, I love the European audiences, their sincerity and knowledge. I could have a house in Mexico, too. A contrast, I know, but I love it there as well."

Russell recently performed at the Cambridge Folk Festival, an event which has made quite an impression on him. "It's probably the best folk festival in the world - Richard Thompson and Emmylou Harris were on this year - and I got three standing ovations when I did Who's Gonna Build Your Wall (his Mexican immigrant song) from the new record."

Russell was the best-selling artist at the festival. Despite his celebrated status as a songwriter, he is keen to acknowledge his influences. Predictably, Bob Dylan is mentioned and he tells an interesting story about an ex-girlfriend/musician who was bold enough to suggest the great man was over-rated. Hank Williams and Leonard Cohen also feature in Russell's long list.

Tom Russell, with Michael Martin, is at Gateshead's Little Theatre (beside Saltwell Park and Gateshead College) next Tuesday, to promote his new album, Love & Fear (Hightone Records).

TOMORROW night, the former Jayhawk, Mark Olson, brings his wife (Victoria Williams) and band (the Creekdippers) for a visit to the Cluny.

Expect an evening of roots music which derives from folk, Appalachian mountain music, blues and RnB, all delivered in their own unique style.

Actor and singer Kristen Marie Holly plays the support slot.

NEXT Wednesday, the hugely successful Irish folksters, Patrick Street, are at The Sage Gateshead.

The band comprises some of the most talented in Irish traditional music. Kevin Burke (fiddle), Andy Irvine (bouzouki, vocals), Cork-born Jackie Daly (accordion), County Durham's Ged Foley (guitar, vocals) and new Street resident, John Carty (fiddle, banjo, flute and tenor guitar) have a list of "previous" which includes time with Planxty, Bothy Band, House Band and De Dannan.

Next Friday sees the arrival of the original King of Ska, Derrick Morgan & the Freetown Band, at the Cluny.

Born in Stewarton, Jamaica, Morgan made his breakthrough with Little Richard-inspired performances at talent contests on the island. He subsequently recorded for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label and at one point had the top seven places in the chart.

Fat Man, Tougher Than Tough, Seven Letters (a Ben E King cover) and Moon Hop are just a handful of his popular singles.

This is the launch event for Boss Sounds festival.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
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Mark Douglas
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