The reopening of the newly renovated Barre Opera House will be celebrated with the return to Vermont of a singularly respected entertainer, folksinger Tom Rush, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25.
Rush is no stranger to Vermont audiences and venues, and we’ve praised him in the past giving him the sobriquet “New England’s Folk Singer.” The New Hampshire native, a Harvard graduate, has also lived in Massachusetts and Vermont. There are few performers worthy of the title “legendary” but Rush, who has been performing and recording since 1962 certainly has earned that title as well.
He’s 80 but his photos reveal a younger looking man with a full head of white hair and his signature bushy mustache. He’s the folk singer version of actor Robert Redford. He’s an active entertainer who has booked a full slate of live concerts and has an ongoing streaming show each week.
Rush is known for his distinctive guitar style, wry humor and warm, expressive voice. His shows are famously filled with rib-aching laughter, his ability to tell terrific stories, and the sweet melancholy ballads he sings along with his passion for gritty blues numbers.
Rush was a student at Harvard when he started performing and recording in the early 1960s. He was an early contributor to the folk scene in Boston and New York and as such was a contemporary of such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Richie Havens and Joan Baez. He was one of those riding the early wave of urban folk music, and became a fixture in the Boston folk music establishment.
“Tom Rush at The Unicorn,” his first recording, dates from 1962. In the ensuing years, Rush has recorded 26 albums. His latest is the 2018 “Voice.” Rush was not the prolific songwriter back then, more of a song interpreter so his star never rose as high as Dylan’s or Ochs’. He also carried less of the “angry man” folk protester pose than many of his contemporaries did.
While Rush may not have written hundreds of oft-recorded songs like his contemporaries Dylan or Joni Mitchell his impact on the American music scene has been profound. He helped shape the folk revival in the ’60s and the renaissance of the ’80s and ’90s, his music having left its stamp on generations of artists.
James Taylor told Rolling Stone, “Tom was not only one of my early heroes, but also one of my main influences.” Country music star Garth Brooks has credited Rush with being one of his top five musical influences.
Rush has long championed emerging artists. His early recordings introduced the world to the work of Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Taylor, and in more recent years his Club 47 concerts have brought artists such as the late Nanci Griffith and Shawn Colvin to wider audiences when they were just beginning to build their own reputations.
Rush has written several iconic songs like “No Regrets,” “Merrimac County” and “Driving Wheel,” and recorded covers of Eric von Schmidt’s “Joshua Gone Barbados,” and Mitchell’s “Circle Game” and “Urge for Going,” each now connected to him in performance.
While nearly six decades of singing and playing might wear down many a musician (Dylan for example), one recent reviewer said Rush’s “voice is still molasses, smoke and licorice; his fingers still coax magic and thunder from every guitar string, and he’s as engaging a storyteller as he ever was.”
Through Rush’s long career his mellow New Hampshire-inflected baritone has not suffered the ravages of time but only gotten better. This was proven on “What I Know,” his first new studio album, which appeared in 2009. After a 35-year hiatus we heard a Rush whose voice had not diminished considering the wear and tear one might expect from so many performances over such a long period of time. Also, the material was anything but post-retirement geriatric musing. Unlike Dylan, whose voice now sounds cranky as well as creaky, Rush sounds like he could be an up and coming alt country crooner.
While studio CDs are great to listen to, the proof of a fine performer’s mettle is in live performance. There’s plenty of that on YouTube to check out as well.
Another gem of an album proving how good Rush is live is “Tom Rush Trolling for Owls,” in limited release and found only at his shows. This CD contains lots of stage banter and songs that are lighthearted or downright funny. This is pure Tom Rush at his best, showing just how entertaining this performer is.
Rush is accompanied on guitar and piano by Matt Nakoa, a Berklee College of Music graduate. He has two albums to his credit, has won a songwriting award from the Kerrville Folk Festival, and has scored music for Disney Productions. He tours regularly on his own, and has been Rush’s regular accompanist recently.
The BOH currently requires either proof of vaccination or a printed copy of a negative COVID-19 test result obtained within 72 hours (three days) of the show date and masking at all times within the building.