5/03/2010

Leon Redbone: Eccentric Charm and Old-fashioned Talent

When my wife heard that Leon Redbone would be making an appearance at the Aladdin Theater in Portland on April 29, 2010, there was no question regarding the necessity of our attendance at the concert. My wife is a longtime fan of Leon Redbone's recordings, but had never seen him perform, so she was not about to miss an opportunity to be in the audience on that particular evening. Two tickets for Mr. Redbone's performance were duly purchased, allowing me to remain in good favor with my spouse.

Leon Redbone, who generally prefers to keep his beginnings in the realm of mystery, has followed his own musical path for many years (his first album, On the Track, was released on Warner Bros. Records in 1975), doggedly pursuing a bygone style and choosing not to concern himself with the latest trends. Even after several decades of giving performances and releasing recordings, his old-time approach to making music has not changed. It appears that he takes great pride in steadily going against the current mainstream of show business.

At the Aladdin Theater, Leon Redbone was attired, as always, in a suit and tie topped with dark glasses and a hat. He played his guitar and sang while sitting in a chair on a dim stage, with a small lamp providing the only light. (One could only wonder whether it was his choice to perform without the benefit of proper lighting, or merely the result of a backstage problem with the electrical rig.) In addition to singing, he offered a stream of witty comments, delivered in a throaty voice that was barely above a mumble. (He performed most of the songs so quietly that his foot could be clearly heard tapping in time.) He also pulled a camera out of his pocket and took several photographs of the audience.

Mr. Redbone, joined by a young man playing an upright piano, ambled through a collection of songs from the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. "My Blue Heaven," "Ain't Misbehavin' ," "Sheik of Araby," "Shine On, Harvest Moon," "Polly Wolly Doodle," "Sweet Sue (Just You)," "Big Time Woman," "Champagne Charlie," and other vintage tunes were rendered with a degree of skill that belied Mr. Redbone's humorously offhand manner. During one tune, "Vienna, City of My Dreams," he sweetly whistled along to a recording of a zither. At the end of his set, he amiably took requests, as members of the audience shouted out for particular songs.

It was an unusual performance, both enjoyably odd and musically charming, and one that I will not soon forget. Although Leon Redbone probably will never succeed in having any degree of mass appeal (assuming, of course, that he actually cares about such matters), one thing can be stated with absolute certainty: he is an excellent musician, with eccentric charm and old-fashioned talent to spare.