Saturday, November 10, 2012

Tom Russell – Heart on a Sleeve

Heart on a Sleeve (2012 remaster with bonus tracks)

I wasn’t one of the lucky few who first heard Heart on a Sleeve, Tom Russell’s first solo LP, when it was originally released as an LP in 1984, although I did catch up with it when it was first reissued on CD about a decade or so later.

But, even before I actually heard first heard Tom on Road to Bayamon, his second solo LP, I was already a big fan of his songwriting having heard some of his early gems in versions by Bill Staines, Ian Tyson and Nanci Griffith. Two of those gems, the amazing “Gallo del Cielo,” which I first heard by Ian on the first of his great cowboy culture LPs, and “St. Olav’s Gate,” which I first heard Nanci sing at the Golem, the folk club I ran in Montreal in the 1970s, and ‘80s, are from Heart on a Sleeve, an album which revealed a singer and songwriter already well on his way to greatness.

“Gallo del Cielo” and “St. Olav’s Gate,” both of which Tom would later re-record, are certainly among the highlights of the debut album.

“Gallo del Cielo” is a vivid Tex-Mex border ballad about a desperate Mexican and his stolen fighting rooster. It’s exciting, it’s heartbreaking and every time I’ve seen Tom live he’s brought down the house with it. It’s also a great showcase for the stunning guitar playing of Andrew Hardin, an amazing player who worked with Tom for about 25 years beginning around the time of this album

“St. Olav’s Gate,” set in Oslo, is an insightful song about passing encounters that don’t turn into what we think they might have. As I mentioned in my booklet essay for The Tom Russell Anthology: Veteran’s Day, most of our younger selves have been that drunken guy waiting in vain at St. Olav’s Gate, even if our personal St. Olav’s Gate wasn’t in Oslo.

Among the other highlights are “One and One” and “The Dance,” a pair of terrific duets recorded with Shawn Colvin about four years before her own debut album; “Cropduster,” sung from the perspective of a crop dusting pilot lost in his fantasies; “Chinese Silver,” a western ballad about an unobtainable woman; “Canadian Whiskey,” which could almost be about the same woman in “Chinese Silver” a couple of decades later; and “Blinded By the Light of Love,” a Saturday night song with a great Sunday morning arrangement.

In addition to the 12 songs on the original LP, there are six bonus tracks – including “The Dance” with Shawn Colvin – recorded around that time. The arrangements, thanks to players like Andrew Hardin, are terrific and the remastered sound, thanks to John Yuelkenbeck, is fabulous.

The CD is only available online through and at the merch table at Tom’s concerts.

Speaking of Tom’s concerts, he’ll be in this part of Canada at Hugh’s Room in Toronto on Thursday, November 22, and at Petit Campus in Montreal on Saturday, November 24 as part of the Wintergreen Concert Series.

Pictured: Tom Russell and Mike Regenstreif (2005).

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