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Music Reviews

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November 29, 1995

The Rose of the San Joaquin

Tom RussellTom Russell, The Rose of the San Joaquin (Hightone Records 1995) - Based on his recent recordings, Tom Russell seems determined to place the Central Valley on the musical landscape. Now living in New York, this California native spins 12 compelling tales of workers and hobos, lovers and losers on The Rose of the San Joaquin.

Russell grew up in Southern California listening to the West Coast "hillbilly" sounds of Merle Travis and Spade Cooley. Says Russell, "We had a small ranch in Topanga Canyon in the late 50s. It was a real drugstore cowboy scene up there with movie stuntmen and amateur bullriders...Later on, I heard Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart, and Merle Haggard out of Bakersfield."

With these singer/songwriter influences, Russell began his professional musical career in Vancouver in the early 70s. He soon moved to Austin, Texas and recorded two critically-acclaimed albums with pianist Patricia Hardin. Russell later moved to San Francisco, then toured Europe before settling in New York (where he also works as a novelist).

Besides his own albums, Russell has also written songs for such artists as Suzy Bogguss ("Outbound Plane") and Jerry Jeff Walker ("Navaho Rug").

The Rose of the San Joaquin was co-produced by Dave Alvin (whose recent album on Hightone, King of California, is also a great effort) and ace steel guitarist Greg Leisz (part of k.d. lang's band), and features such sterling musicians as Bob Glaub on bass, renowned session man Don Heffington on drums, and Katy Moffat on harmony vocals.

The leadoff song, "The Rose of the San Joaquin," is a terrific Spanish-influenced number that should put the Central Valley on the musical map in the same fashion that Marty Robbins made "El Paso" famous. With Russell's references to Madera, Dos Palos, and the Chowchilla River, it's impossible not to like this lament for his left-behind home.

Russell has a clear affinity for the Central Valley, which defies easy explanation. In the liner notes, he spins a cryptic tale about a long-lost uncle who worked in the labor camps in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1920s before showing up on L.A.'s Skid Row, with "a rose tattooed on his right hand between thumb and forefinger. The next morning, Louie was gone again. Forever."

Russell tends to alternate between a 60s country sound (as on the bar-burner, "Out in California") and more folksy numbers (as on "Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son"). In addition to original tunes, The Rose of the San Joaquin also features tracks written by Peter Case, Cris Gaffney, and Dave Alvin.

Russell has a great storytelling style, and a strong sense of his roots; this was also evident on the recent Tulare Dust:Tribute to Merle Haggard collection, to which Russell contributed one of the best tracks ("They're Tearing the Labor Camps Down"). His new single, "The Rose of the San Joaquin," should become a local anthem. Get to know Tom Russell.

Blazing LongboardsSoundtrack to Blazing Longboards (Mesa 1995) - Blazing Longboards is the soundtrack to director Chris Bystrum's new surf film of the same name. Featuring 16 tracks of surf guitar, blues, and world music from a host of Mesa's stars, Blazing Longboards has a little something for everyone.

The genesis for this soundtrack occurred when director Bystrum, a long-time fan of acoustic guitar & violin duo Willie & Lobo (who are also avid surfers) contacted Mesa/Blue Moon Records in 1994 about using the pair's music for his next film. After hearing a sampling of music by other Mesa artists, Bystrum couldn't wait to incorporate their music into his film.

Says Bystrum, "As a filmmaker, it was a dream come true for me to assemble these tracks for my new film. Creating the soundtrack allowed me to present diverse music from around the world - and I found combining the images of great waves with hot music electrifying."

"Blazing Longboards (the film) is a culmination of 12 months of intensive world travel to capture the most progressive longboard riders in absolutely classic ways. I am sure you will enjoy what you see and hear, so come along with us for the ride."

In addition to instrumental cuts from Willie & Lobo (including the lovely "Sweet Meanderings"), Spanish guitarist Peppino D'Agostino, and classic stylists Strunz & Farah, the album also features hot surf music from San Francisco-based The Aqua Velvets (who feature a classic surf guitar sound) and neo-psychedelic-surf instrumentalists, The Mermen.

The album also features vocal contributions from Jerry Riopelle (who has an adult contemporary sound) and rocker Scott Henderson.

All told, Blazing Longboards is a great sampler of the artists on Mesa/Blue Moon Records. Mesa's a tremendously consistent label, and its acts always give their best effort. Blazing Longboards will introduce you to a new world of music.

-- Randy Krbechek

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