Roots on the Rails

Rialto Theatre, Thursday, Sept. 13

Tom Russell, Dave Alvin, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum--to experience their music in performance, all on the same stage, is living history. Their songs are an animated anthropology of real life in our times, none of it ordinary. Their delivery limns emotional landscapes as art, as if photographed by Ansel Adams from a slow-moving train.

Thursday's set was dominated by songs mentioning or inspired by train rides, Arizona or border politics. One of the most moving moments belonged to Lewis singing "A Hand to Hold." Relating the loss of someone close to her, the song features a bit of rose quartz treasured from a hike in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Alvin's marathon "Ashgrove" was the most powerfully emotional performance of the evening, highlighting his all-but-peerless feel for acoustic blues guitar and driving the audience through a roller coaster of dynamics. The soul in his delivery seemed to pull from the very center of the Earth. As often as we see Alvin in his rock-band incarnation, and as much as he seems to prefer that mode, the solo acoustic treatment best exposes the glistening core of his Grammy-winning songwriting and his inspired guitar interpretations.

Russell played to the crowd with a joke about The Minutemen, leading into his thoughtful, if amusing, "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?" The query goes out to those who plan to wall off Mexico from our land of plenty, suggesting the effort might fail because of a lack of Mexican labor.

The highlight of the show was its closing set, in which the performers took turns leading songs while the others sang and played along. Alvin and Russell led with "Out in California," a song they'd co-written that's a masterpiece of common-man poetry. Allen provided the group's greatest challenge with his typically eccentric "New Delhi Freight Train," which he said he'd written while watching a Jesse James movie starring Robert Wagner. Lewis kicked off Johnny Cash's "Train of Love," and following a jam on "Wreck of the Old '97," the show closed with a crowd request, Russell's "Blue Wing," in a treatment he'd borrowed from Alvin's popular cover of the song.

Many in the audience were to board the Sierra Madre Express in the morning to spend seven days with these performers. Everyone else likely was fantasizing about stowing away.

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