LIVE: Tom Rush Brings Us Round and Round in His Circle Game, 10/16/2021


We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look
Behind, from where we came
And go round and round and round, in the circle game 

Tom Rush took an enthralled audience deep into Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” Saturday night at the Eighth Step, 56 years after he recorded it on his album of the same name. Fifty-six years of going round and round in a career that began in a Harvard Square coffeehouse one block from his dorm room at Harvard where he studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English. 

In the early years, Tom Rush was one of the young Turks playing an 80-seat Club 47, basement home to “the folk scare” that was sweeping campuses across the country. Named after its address, 47 Mount Auburn St., the Club 47 was across the street from the Harvard Coop that sold the records of the legacy artists who inspired the up-and-coming folksingers that played there: Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Big Bill Broonzy, and Earl Scruggs. 

Captive on the carousel of time Saturday night, Tom told the story of his friend and fellow folksinger Geoff Muldaur inviting two veteran blues artists back to his apartment. They hung out in the kitchen. Each had done separate concerts in different Boston venues.  And Geoff thought he could glean a wealth of knowledge about the blues from these living icons. What he didn’t know was they hated each other. One pulled a razor and the other a gun. Both were blind and in their 80s. The gun toting blues man egged the razor-toting one to make a sound so he’d know where to aim the gun for a clear shot. “Make a noise and I can hit ya.” 

Then Tom launched into Sleepy John Estes’ “Drop Down Mama” with its lyric, “My mama don’t allow me to hang out all night long.” He played it adroitly on one of seven acoustic guitars he had poised in a row in stage.  He was accompanied by keyboardist Matt Nakoa. The two have a mutual admiration society going that explodes in their songs. 

Tom told the story of meeting Joni Mitchell in a Detroit chess club turned music venue long before she was popular, hearing her sing “The Urge for Going.” 

I get the urge for going but I never seem to go 
And I get the urge for going when the meadow grass is turning brown 
Summertime is falling down winter’s closing in 

He “mashed together” a couple of songs by B.B. king’s cousin Bukka White about the Panama Limited, a train that pulled into a Tennessee train station where one could hear it coming by laying your ear to the tracks. 

Opening his first set with “Making The Best of A Bad Situation,” apropos of the times, he segued into an original “Won’t Be Back at All,” saying it’s best to do a new song early in the set. “In case it sucks, I have time to recover.” 

Margie Rosenkranz introduced the second set with a brief emotional history of The Eighth Step which this year celebrates its 55th anniversary. She was a latecomer to the facility that began in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in Albany because as a Schenectady Catholic School teenager she “needed a passport” to go to Albany. She took over this “refuge for restless youth” when her colleague Tim Gifford passed away. The church eventually kicked her out, calling the Eighth Step “a commercial enterprise” and the folk showcase bounced from The Cohoes Music Hall to RPI to the Schenectady Carl Company Department Store in the same building that now houses the GE Theatre where this show took place. 

If the first set was a concert, the second set was a private party. At 81, Tom Rush was playing to his fans, many of whom had white hair, some of it long, and those were the guys. 

He opened with “Ladies Love Outlaws,” a song that helped establish Waylon Jennings as the progenitor of the outlaw country movement in the early ’70s. 

Ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs 
Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold 
And outlaws touch the ladies 
Somewhere deep down in their soul. 

Tom Rush was unique among the early folk era headliners in that from the beginning he did songs from multiple genres. He covered songs in this set by Lyle Lovett who “is not like the other children,” Jackson Browne, and his own “No Regrets” about the girl on the cover of his Circle Game album. It has been covered by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Shirley Bassey, The Walker Brothers in England, Emmylou Harris, and Midge Ure whose cover also made the UK Top Ten. 

Like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, Willie Nelson, and other great artists from multiple genres, Tom Rush can sell a song and make you believe you’re experiencing it together for the first time. He’s a storyteller. His live rendition of “Remember” went viral on YouTube in 2007. It’s about aging forgetfulness by Steven Walters, a relative unknown. We lived it with Tom Saturday night. 

Late in the set, he did his own best known original, “Merrimack County,” about his home in New Hampshire. 

Way up north by the ice bound ocean 
I was born I was born 
Way up north in the Merrimack County 
That’s my home that’s my home 
When I was younger and in my schooling 
I walked the mountains made of stone 
The distance sang about tomorrow 
And I did wish I was grown and gone 

Basking in a standing ovation, he said “I know you’re supposed to leave the stage and come back for an encore (but) you want another one?” He then leaned into “Who Do You Love” with all the rock and roll muscle that Bo Diddley brought to the original when I saw him in the basement of a Tufts University frat house in 1964. 

1 Comment
  1. carol davis says

    thanks Don for a fine review and thanks 8th step for a wonderful renewal of live music. Great show!! from a gem of a performer

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