Saturday, December 3, 2011

Concert review: Leon Redbone at the Shenkman Centre

In the 1970s, I produced several Montreal concerts with Leon Redbone. The first, at Redpath Hall in 1974, a year or so before Leon's first LP came out, was one of the most successful shows I put together in those days (I also think it was one of the first times, if not the first time, he had headlined in a concert hall, rather than club setting).

I booked Leon into the 400-seater and needed to sell about 200 tickets to break even. About a week before the show, we’d moved about 150 tickets and it looked like I’d probably break even or maybe even make a little money with a good walk-up sale.

Then, all of a sudden, there was an item in Rolling Stone in which Bob Dylan raved about Leon. Ticket sales went crazy. The show sold out. We added a second show and it sold out. We sold 800 tickets for an artist yet to make his first record. And another  couple of hundred people were turned away at the door.

The last time I saw Leon was at a folk festival, circa 1980 or ’81. So, until Thursday night’s concert at the Shenkman Centre in Ottawa (and a quick visit backstage – thank you, Richard Flohil!), it had been a good 30 years since I’ve seen him live.

All the Redbone magic from decades ago was very much in evidence at the Shenkman Centre. The music – blues, jazz and Tin Pan Alley songs from 70 and more years ago –was great and the shtick, straight out of pre-war vaudeville, was hilarious.

After a short, charming opening set by young and very promising singer-songwriter Ariana Gillis, accompanied by her father, David Gillis, Leon – accompanied by Paul Asaro, a wonderful stride pianist – ambled on to the stage in a Chaplinesque manner, using his cane to great comedic effect.

The repertoire was all old songs – most of them instantly recognizable – and included great arrangements of numbers like “Diddy Wa Diddie,” which was requested more than once before Leon got around to it, “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Shine On Harvest Moon,” with the audience harmonizing perfectly, “Big Time Woman,” “Marie,” and “Sweet Sue,” all sung, and occasionally whistled, with Leon’s studied drollness.

Watching Leon expertly play the guitar was a joy. His fingers seemed to dance all over the fret board and his playing seemed like it was based as much on piano as guitar arrangements. And, in Asaro, he had a terrific stride pianist to play with.

Asaro’s piano was hidden behind a barrier so he was only to be seen when sticking his head up to take an occasional blow or to enter or exit the stage. While this kept all the visual attention on Leon, Asaro was very much a part of the show. His playing was great, easily matching Leon’s dexterous finger and fret work. And Asaro also occasionally played Abbott to Leon’s Costello in some back and forth comedy bits that would look dumb on paper but were hilarious in the way they pulled them off.

It’s funny what you remember sometimes. Sitting watching Leon, I recalled a line from the Montreal Star review by rock critic David Freeston about a Leon Redbone concert I produced in 1977 or ’78 at Pollack Hall.

“It was the darndest thing I ever saw,” wrote Freeston.

Yeah, and Leon is still pretty close to the darndest thing going, 30-odd years later.

--Mike Regenstreif

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