By TOM CHESEK
The seersucker suit and the straw boater; the smoked glasses and the Groucho-greasepaint ‘stache; the Kentucky-colonel tie and the Walking Stick made famous in song — who else could it have been but Leon Redbone?
Yet, when we happened upon the veteran performer at a Tony Bennett show in Atlantic City — and greeted him with a smooth and sophisticated “Hey, you’re Leon Redbone” — all we got by way of acknowledgment was an “Oh, I don’t know ’bout that…,” delivered in the inimitable drawl that sounds like Al Jolson and Dean Martin knocking back a few Old Fashioneds at the 1919 World Series.
Since he materialized on the national stage in the mid-1970s, serenading Saturday Night Live viewers with songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “Shine On Harvest Moon,” the man of mystery named Leon Redbone has by and large spoken to the world from beneath a vintage hat, behind a novelty-shop nose ‘n glasses, and between the lines of of a bygone era of Tin Pan, back-porch, popular music. Granting few interviews over the years — and remaining purposely vague and contrary on those occasions he did — the master musicologist and ace guitar-picker introduced several new generations of listeners to songs like “The Sheik of Araby” and “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree,” popping up from time to time in the occasional beer commercial, TV talk show or major motion picture even while pointing the way toward the more stripped-down, laid back rootsy styles that would take hold in the wake of the music industry meltdown.
On Sunday evening, August 19, Redbone brings his timewarp talents and hoary sense of humor to Red Bank as the latest in the summertime series of Intimate Evenings concerts, produced by MusicWorks Entertainment and presented on the stage of Two River Theater. The Americana Desk at redbankgreen was fortunate to get the man on the Ma Bell (following at least one false start); what follows is certainly one of the most cantankerous and curmudgeonly Q&As we’ve ever conducted in this space — but imagine it delivered with a wink, a chuckle and an attitude that’d make W.C. Fields proud, and flip that wax 78 over for more.
redbankgreen: Thanks for calling in, Mr. Leon. Been listening to you since I first saw you on an early episode of Saturday Night Live, which is now probably further away from the here and now than Hoagy Carmichael was when you were first covering his songs.
Now, you’ve been called everything from a “genius” and a “stylist,” to quite possibly Bob Dylan or Frank Zappa in disguise. To my mind, when I look at the genre of music that’s come to be called Americana, you’re nothing short of a Futurist. The new generation of folks who mine the traditional musical styles, who play sit-down shows on acoustic instruments, owe you a tip of the Panama hat.
LEON REDBONE: I’ve always been interested in the past. The future is questionable, and it’s nice to have some control over things.
Really, much as we like a lot of the young, old-timey hipsters like Pokey LaFarge, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, you were working that corner during an era when everything was trending bigger and more electric, just tacking against the tide with these economical, intimate, laid-back shows.
I couldn’t do what I do in an arena. I’ve got a balance to maintain, otherwise I have to keep putting in more instruments. The right environment is always important to what it is I do, which is to do shows that are intimate performances. Economical, is not a bad way to put it.
Speaking of which, are you performing pure solo when you come to Red Bank? Or will you have one or two accompanists?
If he shows up, I’ve got [Chicago-based, Grammy winning ragtime pianist] Paul Asaro playin’ piano.
I envision you as a regular have-guitar, will-travel kind of character, troubleshooting your way from big cities to whatever dip in the road looks like it can use a little song and patter. So where’s home base for you these days?
Oh, I’m one of the homeless these days. I just travel around to my shows, drivin’ myself. I like to travel in a linear fashion, even though tryin’ to drive around the Northeast is a traffic nightmare.
I also can’t help but envision you behind the wheel of Jack Benny’s old Maxwell, puttering out to the countryside to play those folk and roots music festivals that pop up this time each year. Do you enjoy the opportunity to perform in an open-air sort of setting?
No, because unfortunately, they insist on holdin’ these festivals in July and August. They’re the wrong months to be outside. It’s just crazy.
Still, those are probably the only shows where you’re allowed to smoke your trademark cigars.
I’m down to just one or two cigars a year. It becomes a question of being able to sing more, or breathing less.
Alright, whenever we talk to a musician we have to ask them about their take on the tremendous changes that have occurred in the past several years, regarding the way music is recorded, delivered, sold to the public. I imagine you’ve got a very particular point of view to share.
Well, first of all I haven’t recorded an album in years, close to ten years, I guess. I’m not crazy about the idea of recording everything on a computer. But the real problem is that people tend to chase after the latest thing, and whatever used to serve us well gets pushed to the side even though there’s still plenty of people who appreciate it.
We have way too much of everything these days, from the latest gizmos, to the things we wear, to the amount of music that we think we need to own. In the old days a family would own five or six 78s, play ‘em all the time and enjoy every note. Now people are obsessed with downloading music, shoving it in a tiny device that takes three million songs, and they don’t even know what it is they just downloaded.
Wouldn’t you agree that having such easy access to such a wide variety of music is a good thing? A person can, with just a little bit of research and hunting around, discover a whole lot of cool old music, and get themselves a decent musical education that would have been impossible not too long ago.
I think it just trivializes everything. It becomes all about quantity, not quality… you know, how much can I possess? The trend is for people to become androids.
Hey, it’s about exposure, and where you take it from there. Me, I grew up during a time when America became pretty obsessed about nostalgia. A lot of it was crap but it taught me a healthy respect for old movies, old comedians, and the kind of strange songs you’d find in a Max Fleischer follow-the-bouncing-ball cartoon. To step outside your peer group, and discover for yourself some weird old thing that spoke to you somehow, was always a special thrill.
A pretty common refrain among your own fans is that they were dragged kicking and screaming to one of your concerts by a friend, and by the time the show was over you’d made yourself a new fan for life. One of your biggest fans was Johnny Carson. It was obvious he loved having you on his show, and he’d give you way more time to do your thing than just some other act plugging their latest record.
He was an interesting man all around. Definitely the genuine article. If you’re going to call someone the King of the talk shows, the King of TV, I’d say he fit the bill as well as anyone ever could. But a lot of things have changed in TV since then.
Well, it’s pretty much a given that if you’re going to catch the attention of a new listener, and inspire them to look into the kind of music that inspired you, they’ll most likely be listening on a mobile device, and downloading everything as fast as they become aware of it. So don’t you think that just maybe, it’s a good thing to have a whole hundred-year panorama of recorded history laid out at your fingertips?
Maybe, maybe not. A little reflection, evaluation, is always a good thing. As opposed to the latest thing. But I admit that I’m quite puzzled… in a positive way… whenever people step outside of what’s going on around them, and discover something that was hidden in plain sight.
So even Mr. Leon Redbone admits that life can be a thing of beauty and wonder!
The way I see it, every day brings something different. Sometimes something gets in your way, and sometimes something can supply something else. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ve got to like it!
Tickets, priced at $49, are still available from the Two River online Ticket Purchase Window, with a limited number of $69 premium seating availabilities offered as well. The “Intimate Evenings” series wraps for the season with appearances by Joan Osborne (August 24) and Judy Collins (August 25).