Live Review

A Legend’s Grace at 80, Tom Paxton’s “Birthday Bash” a Triumph at Virginia's Birchmere

Tom Paxton on October 28, 2017

Tom Paxton sings out with Deb Smith and Marcy Marx at his 80th Birthday Bash in Virginia (Photo by Ron Wray)

Tom Paxton was turning 80, and we were there! A sea of white hair much like the waves along the Outer Banks. With exceptions, the full house audience was comprised of those who’d entered the gates of adulthood listening to and learning from the music of Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Rosalie Sorrels, Bob Dylan, Richard and Mimi Farina, Leonard Cohen, and others. The younger ‘uns not there that night missed-out on an ocean of music, as fresh today as it was in the 60’s and 70’s, when Tom Paxton was following the paths of Guthrie, Seeger, and The Weavers, singing songs with angel wings into increasingly troubled skies. It was Paxton’s momentous 80th Birthday Bash at Alexandria, Virginia's Birchmere, appropriately august venue for such an event, first stop on a tour honoring the American folk legend. Other folk scions joining Tom on stage included a talented range of today’s artists, including fellow icon Tom Rush.

Before the show, Paxton told me that his greatest influences included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Jacques Brel, and The Weavers. Hearing The Weavers in their famed 1956 Carnegie Hall concert set off an explosion in him, he said, to chart his own course in the music they were channeling from traditional spirits. While he’d not met Guthrie (“I did play football against the Okema Panthers,” he said), he mentored with Seeger, a great influence and supporter. And, he noted as well the importance of contemporaries such as Leonard Cohen. Susan Werner is a contemporary he admires, especially her songwriting. “She’s an Artist!, Paxton said with enthusiasm. About whom he was listening to now, he said, “the woods are full of interesting young people. It’s important that they get heard.”

Paxton seemed as strong as ever. Guy Clark said of him, "like a good guitar, he just gets better with age." And, that night belonged to Paxton and showcased his legacy of music. In addition to Rush, performers included: The Don Juans, his current band and mutual admiration society, Kathy Fink and Marcy Marx, Debi Smith (The Four Bitchin’ Babes, The Smith Sisters), David  Buskin, and “Celtic guitar god” Robin Bullock.

Performers played individually and ensemble, including a full stage of performers at the close. Songs included many of Tom’s and covers that Tom had hits of. Along the way were surprises, like David Buskin, noted song and jingle writer performing his own orgasmic ode to men growing old and still having the same old urges. Many of us boomers were in stitches, as the tune went on, intricately treading embarrassing territory. Debi Smith, on her unique Irish bodhran, was another surprise, a pleasing, punching, melodic percussive presence throughout the show.

Highlights included soulful and fresh renditions of his hits such as “The Last Thing on My Mind,” “Bottle of Wine,” "Whose Garden Was This", "The Marvelous Toy", and "Ramblin' Boy" Other powerful performances included a moving, “Marry Me Again,” Paxton/Smith duet and Fink/Marxer’s very personal rendition of Paxton’s heartbreakingly beautiful “You Are Love.” Alice Gerrard’s “Get Up and Do Right” was a perfect fit, a song I wish could somehow brain wash Washington.

To put Paxton’s work in perspective, folk legend Dave Van Ronk said of Paxton (as quoted in Wikipedia), "Dylan is usually cited as the founder of the new song movement, and he certainly became its most visible standard-bearer, but the person who started the whole thing was Tom Paxton ... he tested his songs in the crucible of live performance, he found that his own stuff was getting more attention than when he was singing traditional songs or stuff by other people ... he set himself a training regimen of deliberately writing one song every day. Dylan had not yet showed up when this was happening, and by the time Bobby came on the set, with at most two or three songs he had written, Tom was already singing at least 50 percent his own material. That said, it was Bobby's success that really got the ball rolling. Prior to that, the folk community was very much tied to traditional songs, so much so that songwriters would sometimes palm their own stuff off as traditional."

I’d add that his work took on the political, ethical, and environmental issues of the day without fear or timidity, songs that were recorded by Pete Seeger, John Denver, Judy Collins, and others of his contemporaries. His work overall has been recorded as well by: Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, doc Watson, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Marianne Faithfull, The Kingston Trio, and many others. He’s also known for many popular songs for children. He’s was an actor and a soldier earlier in life. While stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he would make weekly weekend trips to Greenwich Village to listen to folk music at the Bitter End and other famed coffeehouse venues.

When we talked before the show, I’d mentioned something I’d heard an artist say on “The Charlie Rose Show,” that it was in her later, post-60-and-then-some life, that she was doing some of her best, most creative work. I told Tom that I felt similarly and asked him what he thought. “I feel exactly the same,” he said, adding that current times are among the most productive in his life, “writing more imaginatively from the source.” He said this was especially true in his co-writing with his bandmates, The Don Juans, John Vezner and Don Henry, sharing with him inspiration and production as they've toured and recorded together. "Ideas come quickly,” he said. “I’m enjoying it a lot.”

As did we all, Happy Birthday, Tom Paxton!