Concert Review: John McCutcheon and Tom Paxton @ Eighth Step, 10/27/2023
The only thing missing was the campfire.
Usually, when a performer as iconic as folksinger John McCutcheon performs, there’s a certain distance between the act and the audience, a kind of reverence earned by half a century of creating and performing music that reflects the deep emotions of the common man. Add Tom Paxton to the show, and you have a combination that almost matches Dylan on the icon meter.
Dylan performs on the Proctors big stage on Monday, October 30th, but as unapproachable as Dylan is, this dynamic duo was like members of an extended family at a campfire to the near-sellout crowd at The Eighth Step at the GE Theater at Proctor’s Friday night, October 27th. We all became the chorus to the songs of a generation that went to the library and knew what a card catalog was.
It’s like we’d all been through a lifetime of common experiences together because we had. Tom Paxton introduced his best-known number, “Ramblin’ Boy,” with a story about writing it in 1963 and presenting it to Pete Seeger. A week later, Seeger sang it in Carnegie Hall and released it on an album. “I didn’t know whether to shit or vote Republican,” deadpanned Paxton.
The concert was billed as a presentation of songs the two wrote together during weekly Monday afternoon Zoom meetings during the pandemic. The duo has now written more than 100 songs together and performed most of the 14 included on the just-released album Together, including “Ukrainian Now” written two weeks into the war, “Invisible Man,” inspired by the Ralph Ellison novel, “Christmas in the Desert,” their cowboy song “Prairie Star,” and “Life Before You,” a number that sounds like a romantic tome but takes a left turn at the end when you realize they’re singing about a daughter they’re picking up at 3 when the school bus drops her off. The title song, “Together,” concerns dying, the one thing a couple can’t do together.
McCutcheon sang “Christmas in the Trenches,” his song about a World War I British soldier who meets his German adversary on neutral ground without weapons, and soldiers from both sides drink together in a pub on Christmas before taking up their weapons again. Would that that could happen in Gaza?
They presented one song so new Tom had to read the lyrics on a sheet of paper about corruption in politics with the warning, “We will stop at nothing to protect our kids. What will we do when they ask us why.”
I saw Ruthie Foster a few weeks ago bridge the distance between her and her fans as the Thursday night headliner at King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, but what Tom and John did was even more intimate. The two finish each other’s sentences, and their fans sing along through songs that are in the collective consciousness of a generation that feels a powerful connection to a time when coffeehouses like Eighth Step dotted the country and gave definition to post-World War II baby boomers who were just beginning to catch what was “blowin’ in the wind.”