BETHLEHEM, PA—The new MusicFest Café sits directly in front of the rotted remains of the old Bethlehem Steel (1857-2003), which at one time was the second largest steel supplier in the country. Its five blast furnaces have been left standing, and at night they’re lit up like an art deco sculpture. It certainly provided a unique backdrop to another relic, Leon Redbone, 62, still hard-pounding the blues out of his loudly-miked acoustic guitar.
But the blues is only part of his many-sided arsenal. He’s known for digging up arcane and humorous morsels of delectable Americana, sprinkled throughout his 10 studio albums since 1975. He outfits himself—suit, straw hat, bowtie—in vintage Vaudeville-era (1890-1930) attire and sings Tin Pan Alley songs with a knowing wink and odd instrumentation. On this night, besides a rollicking whorehouse piano man, his bass player not only plunked out the bottom on a big acoustic upright but also on an even bigger, cumbersome tuba and alto sax, depending upon the song.
And what songs! The Mills Brothers’ 1928 “Sweet Sue,” Fats Waller’s 1929 “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Irving Berlin’s 1929 “Marie” and Jellyroll Morton’s 1924 “Jelly Roll Blues,” all with that pumpin’ piano, oom-pah tuba, bass and Redbone’s constant blues runs on guitar and smirking vocals; a pure escapist delight.
His version of 1921’s “The Sheik Of Araby”—certainly different from the Beatles’ version— was deliciously jittery, sped up and spit out in all of two minutes.
First-generation rock ‘n’ roll fans may know “My Blue Heaven” from its biggest hit version, belonging to Fats Domino in 1956, but the song dates back to 1927 and Redbone, besides singing it with the kind of soothing delight that in another context could be considered comedy, soloed magnificently. In song after song, Redbone exhibited but downplayed his amazing proficiency on guitar.
“I Ain’t Got Nobody (And Nobody Cares For Me),” written in 1915, is a woeful lament supposed to be sung by a loser. Redbone exaggerates the song’s sly innuendo to accentuate the sexual come-on hidden between the lines, “Won’t some pretty mama take a chance on me ‘cause I ain’t so bad!”
It wasn’t evident whether Redbone was playing the part of the grouchy curmudgeon or if he really was honestly complaining about the loud sound system, the monitors, the setlist (he couldn’t remember if he had performed a certain song or not), his guitar and the air conditioning in the venue. Hey, he’s an artiste! We were lucky he didn’t just up and walk off the stage (with the help of his cane).
In keeping with his aura of oldschool showbiz, Redbone’s smart enough to have an opening act who wasn’t a singer, or even a musician. This reporter may have groaned when he realized there even was an opener, but I’m glad I got there early because Chris Ruggerio juggled, he rode a unicycle, he bantered with the audience and threw knives in the air. Who the hell wants to see some singer sing songs you don’t want to hear? I say all bands should have guys like Ruggerio open their shows. Now that’s entertainment!