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It’s the first time I’ve been back to the Town Hall since the renovations and I’m well impressed. The seats are comfortable and I’ve never had so much leg room in a theatre before — they seem to have taken out every other row! The theatre was about two-thirds full, and the age of the audience reflected Tom Paxton‘s age, with very few people under 50.

The first set started with Robin Bullock, Tom’s accompanist, playing two guitar instrumentals, ‘Raglan Road’ and ‘My love is like a red, red rose’. They were well played but not very exciting. Tom Paxton then came onstage and the evening really began.

He started out with a handful of political songs — ‘How Beautiful Upon the Mountain’ from his latest album; a ditty to Sarah Palin and another short throwaway piece about the banking crisis; ‘There Goes the Mountain’ and ‘Whose Garden Is This’? The songs were punctuated with chat about the US political system (his mention of Barack Obama bringing a cheer from the audience), environmental issues and the evils of strip mining. Throughout the evening he moved from recent songs to old ones — ‘Whose Garden Is This?’, for example, was written for the First Earth Day in 1970. There was a tendency towards name-dropping — knowing that Vera Lynn and John Denver both recorded ‘Whose Garden’ didn’t really add anything for me — and Tom’s recent Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award got mentioned a couple of times.

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Having reassured the audience that his political credentials are as strong as they always were, the rest of the evening was devoted to love and friendship songs. Again these varied between songs from the current album and ones written as much as 45 years ago. Interestingly, for me many of the more personal love and family songs had failed to work when I heard them on the album, but were much more moving and universal sung live. ‘Reason to Be’ stood out — Tom’s voice soared to the top of the Town Hall and beyond.

Tom’s voice is still strong and confident and doesn’t seem to have aged. He got the audience singing along from the fifth song, although most people were fairly tentative until we reached ‘Marvellous Toy’ which evoked some lusty singing and much applause. Tom is from a tradition that wants and expects audience participation but this audience was rather subdued and polite, although obviously enjoying the show.

The first half finished with a song that hasn’t yet been recorded — ‘I took another way’ — and the crowd was absolutely still and spellbound throughout it.

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Tom had reminded the audience that there would be things for sale in the lobby during the interval but they hardly needed reminding! The scrum round the merchandise table was wondrous to behold. This was an audience with a high level of disposable income and CDs and books flew off the table, despite prices of £15 and £20.

The second set started with a nice guitar version of ‘Shenendoah’ by Robin Bullock, followed by a very accomplished performance of ‘Come Away with Me’. Tom and Robin had been fairly static on stage until now, but a lively version of ‘I Like the Way You Look when You Don’t Know That I’m Looking at You’ had Robin leaping about with his mandolin and a big grin on his face.

Despite the energy that the two musicians put into this song, however, the show as a whole was smooth and accomplished rather than outstanding. There were occasional highlights — one for me was ‘Jennifer’s Rabbit’, a song Tom wrote for his daughter 40 years ago and that I hadn’t heard or thought about since the early seventies. I had forgotten how good it is — a surreal Alice in Wonderland sort of song, filled with strange psychedelic images. It’s notable that three of the songs that got the most applause during the evening were songs written for children, underlining the long-standing quasi-nostalgic relationship between Tom and many of his fans. But overall the show was pleasurable rather than exciting, and the audience response fairly quiet.

It was only on the last two songs — surely two of his best known — that the audience really became confident in their singing or noisy in their appreciation. ‘The Last Thing on My Mind’ — described by Tom as ‘everyone’s regret song’ — had everyone singing both verses and choruses; so too did ‘Rambling Boy’.

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Tom had announced that he and Robin would be available to sign CDs after the show (‘I recommend getting your CD signed — it activates them’, he urged) and the basement bar of the Town Hall was in its own way as interesting as the show itself. The queue for autographs reached out the door of the bar and the signing session took around an hour. Over and over fans wanted to make links not only with the Tom Paxton of the present but also with the shared experiences of the last 40 years. They reminded him of other concerts they had been to, political demonstrations where they had heard him sing, and people they knew in common. Many had brought old LPs in disintegrating sleeves for him to sign instead of or as well as copies of the new CD, bought during the interval. Maybe for many of the audience the strength of the concert was as much here, in the memories and connections, and the chance to chat for a few minutes to someone they had “known” for many years, as it was in the songs themselves.

 

Set list

First half

Robin Bullock: Raglan Road
My Love is like a Red, Red Rose

Tom Paxton (with Robin Bullock accompanying):
How Beautiful Upon the Mountain
Sarah Palin
I’m Changing My Name to Fannie Mae
There Goes the Mountain
Whose Garden Is It?
Out on the Ocean
What a Friend You Are
Reason to Be
Marvellous Toy
And If It’s Not True
I Took Another Way

Second half

Robin Bullock: Shenendoah

Tom Paxton (with Robin Bullock accompanying):
Come Away with Me
I Like the Way You Look When You Don’t Know
that I’m Looking at You
Any Time at All
Bottle of Wine
Did You Hear John Hurt
Jennifer’s Rabbit
Katy
Jennifer and Kate
Marry Me Again
The Last Thing on My Mind
The Last Thing on My Mind (parody)
Rambling Boy

Encores
For the Bravest
Comedians and Angels

Review & Photos – Betty Hagglund

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