Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Decision to see Tom Rush? No regrets

Last Saturday, the Indy Acoustic Cafe Series brought longtime folk singer-songwriter Tom Rush to Indianapolis, performing at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 1505 N. Delaware St., a venue different from the series' usual Fountain Square home of the past few years.

Rush's repertoire dates to the 1960s, and he has performed at many high-profile folk festivals through the years -- alongside James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, to name just a few -- yet amazingly, his 2009 CD "What I Know" was his first studio recording since 1974.

Rush's selection of songs Saturday proved wildly entertaining. Among them were "The Remember Song," "The Fish Story Song," "Ladies Love Outlaws" and "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian." And as entertaining as the music was, Rush's yarns, which he spun freely to the delight of a healthy-sized crowd, were equally wonderful.

My "acquaintance" with Rush's work goes back to the summer between my junior and senior years in college in Wisconsin. I was still kind of reeling from a breakup with a gal for whom I had fallen hard my first year in the school. Hadn't done much dating since then, in fact. Album-oriented rock stations were just becoming trendy then, and I latched onto a new one in Milwaukee, WQFM, which would hold a formidable position in Milwaukee radio for 20-some years before suffering the fate of many other such stations nationwide -- a change in ownership, format and call letters.

Late at night, when everyone else in the house had retired for the day upstairs, I'd lie in bed in the basement listening to new music being introduced on WQFM. It's where I first heard extensive, non-single music by such bands as Traffic, Blind Faith, the Allman Brothers, Rush, Rod Stewart and Faces and the first time I'd ever heard of solo performers Mississippi John Hurt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Denver and John Prine. One night, the station played a melancholy ballad about a guy lamenting the uncertainty of life ahead of him without the woman who had not only just left him but punctuated the split by departing on an airplane flight right before his very eyes -- "Goodbye, dry eyes, I watched her plane ... fade off west of the moon," as the lyric goes.

Then after the 3-and-a-half-minute tune appeared to fade, there appeared these compelling, solo acoustic guitar arpeggios, transitioning into a 4-minutes-plus instrumental ballad. The powerful storyline simpatico I had experienced moments earlier subsided as I sat up, in awe of this guitar romp, eager to find out who was responsible for it. The performer of both was Tom Rush, and the songs were "No Regrets" and "Rockport Sunday." Until Saturday, I'd gone some 40 years knowing nothing about the background of those compositions.

Like I do for all the Indy Acoustic Cafe shows that I photograph, I contacted Rush a few weeks ago in advance of his show to make sure he had no objection to me photographing his performance. The groupie in me came out in my inquiry email, and I divulged to Rush the effect his "No Regrets / Rockport Sunday" had on me in my college days. He acknowledged my email and told me photography would not be a problem at the show. He complimented the photos he had seen in my gallery of the Acoustic Cafe Series. He did not say anything about what I had told him about "No Regrets / Rockport Sunday." I couldn't help but wonder if that meant he'd played them so often that he'd grown tired of them and wouldn't play them in Indy.

At Saturday's show, after a thoroughly enjoyable set and a half of songs and anecdotes, Rush jokingly mentioned that he now was going to play "a medley of my hit." I felt a rush (no pun intended) of excitement, because I was familiar enough with his discography to know that, unlike contemporaries Taylor, Browne and Mitchell, Rush had no Billboard single hits. But I did know that "No Regrets" was one of his best-known and most-covered tunes.

Rush then told the audience a story that confirmed my suspicion. He said he had written the song to impress a new love interest in the 1960s. (One might question the logic of how a song about a breakup would impress a new love interest, but when I was that young, my mind unfortunately often worked in similar, reverse-psychology fashion, so I had no trouble relating).

He also told how at an East Coast festival where he performed the song many years ago, a woman stood near the stage signing the lyrics for the hearing impaired in the audience. He stopped in mid-performance -- and couldn't continue, he said -- when he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, the woman using a horns-on-head gesture at the point where the lyrics were "strange faces in your place can't keep the ghosts away." The woman apparently had misheard the word "goats" for "ghosts."

Incredibly, years later in Wyoming, before taking the stage at another outdoor live performance, Rush said, he noticed the same woman off to the side, signing lyrics for the audience. When he came to "No Regrets" during his show, he told the audience the story about the "ghosts" and "goats" snafu ... and got his revenge. He did not say whether the female signer took it in good stride or otherwise, unfortunately.

Inspiration for the acoustic-guitar instrumental "Rockport Sunday," Rush said, came simply as he sat one Sunday along the Massachusetts coastline, watching the ocean's waves lap against the rocks, and he composed the tune to try to convey what that moment sounded like.

Interestingly, the two songs' sequence on Rush's late-1960s album "The Circle Game" is the opposite of how I first heard them on WQFM. The vinyl and CD have "No Regrets" following the instrumental. I'll always know it the other way around, and to this day I am impressed how WQFM managed to pull that switch, a more logical order in my mind, for my inaugural exposure.

Rush's performance of the songs Saturday was as close to how I knew them best -- no altered or unusual arrangements or syncopation, which I've heard/seen on YouTube videos. There's a part of me that wants to think Tom might have done that for my sake, his way of acknowledging then what he did not acknowledge in the email response in the advance of the show. Tom Rush CDs were available for purchase after the show, and even though he made himself accessible to the audience to sign the CDs, and I might have gotten him to verify my suspicion, I decided not to pursue it. I want to cling to that little selfish hope.

A full gallery of photos from the performance can be found at my site at SmugMug.

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