Tom Paxton: Lighthouse, Poole, 20th May 2015
Fifty years after he first set foot on British soil, American folk legend Tom Paxton has returned to these shores to bid a fond farewell to the UK fans who have supported him and his music over the past half century.
True to form he did it in style. I caught up with Paxton as he played Lighthouse in Poole midway through his 17 show final UK tour.
He may have decided that, at the age of 77, it’s time to kick off his travelling shoes and take it just a little easier but he’s still a powerful and hugely entertaining performer. He also has a formidable back catalogue and a whole bunch of excellent new material to call on. Best of all the new stuff and particularly the songs on his latest album Redemption Road is as sharp and relevant as anything he’s ever written.
Paxton’s songs - laced with wit, conscience and commitment in more or less equal measure - range from good-time singalongs to tales of lost love, stirring peacenik anthems and heartfelt cries for us to love and cherish not only each other but our poor abused planet too. All are delivered from somewhere deep in his soul. You sense that though his idealism has been tested down the years, Paxton is still essentially an optimist who will never lose that twinkle in his eye.
With fine accompanist Robin Bullock on second guitar and harmony vocals, Paxton was able to deliver a fuller sound and perhaps more amply display his singer/songwriter skills that have been honed over more than five decades of writing and performing.
There were of course the all time favourites - The Last Thing On My Mind, Bottle Of Wine and Ramblin' Boy etc. - but there were also songs that begged big contemporary questions like If the Poor Don’t Matter.
There was emotional stuff too. My Lady’s A Wild Dove, the song he wrote as a gift to his late wife Midge who died last year after more than 50 years of marriage, brought tears to my eyes.
Different emotions – pride, gratitude and admiration – were stirred by The Bravest, Paxton’s moving tribute to the 343 New York fire fighters who lost their lives saving others during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He dug deep into his past for fond memories and anecdotes about the burgeoning New York folk scene back in the early sixties. He painted a colourful word-portrait of the streets of Greenwich Village and characters that populated its bars and folk clubs. People like the great Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and the briefly visiting Mississippi John Hurt . Those golden days and the main protagonists were also the subject of wonderful Paxton songs like The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Comedians and Angels and Have You Seen John Hurt?
His stories were vivid and gripping but I did find myself raising an eyebrow when he started telling us that he didn’t really approve of nostalgia. But then, in typical Tom Paxton style, he tempered his comments with the observation that someone had once told him that looking at the past was absolutely fine….just as long as you don’t stare. Brilliant! We’re all off the hook then.
Photo of Tom Paxton by Michael G. Stewart