Tom Russell displayed all of his formidable gifts Thursday night at Jammin' Java, including his rumbling baritone and his incomparable songwriting. On this night he had an additional gift in the person of accompanist Michael Martin, who confidently rode astride Russell's galloping rhythms on acoustic guitar and mandolin.
Russell showcased many of the songs from his new record, "Love and Fear," and he acknowledged to the audience the new material's departure from his usual "quirky cowboy songs." "The Pugilist at 59," "Beautiful Trouble," "Four Chambered Heart" and "The Sound of One Heart Breaking," with their sophisticated imagery and textured melodies, should be benchmarks for other folk-rockers, but we fear the standard may be too high.
Russell has the uncanny ability to make you laugh at his droll wit and cry at his earnest observations in the same song; he explained it as mixing "philosophy with biology" and the formula, at least in his mature, knowing hands, is potent.
Russell was joined by Gretchen Peters on several songs following her impressive opening set. Peters has written some of the best-selling country songs in the past few years -- "Independence Day" for Martina McBride, "You Don't Even Know Who I Am" for Patty Loveless -- but she performed the more personal, noncommercial songs from her album "Halcyon," accompanied by pianist Barry Walsh, formerly of the Box Tops. Like Russell, Peters also displayed formidable gifts, and the Jammin' Java audience was all too happy to accept them.
-- Buzz McClain
Fine Arts Quartet
Musicians, like the rest of us, delight in celebrating round-number anniversaries. The Fine Arts Quartet, feting its own 60th year, featured music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (250 this year) and Dmitri Shostakovich (100) at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Thursday.
The group gave Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 1 a tight and skilled performance, demonstrating an excellent sense of ensemble from the gossamer-light scherzo to the acerbic harmonies of the final allegro. The quartet captured the composer's sense of humor, though a lack of intensity detracted from the work's emotional depth.
National Symphony Orchestra principal violist Daniel Foster joined the quartet for Mozart's String Quintet in D, K 593. Foster blended in seamlessly, matching tone, timbre and style with violist Yuri Gandelsman and the rest of the quartet: violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico and cellist Wolfgang Laufer. It's amazing how much a single violist can add to a string quartet, and Foster's presence brought the ensemble to near orchestral proportions in this lively and dramatic performance.
Bernard Herrmann's music was a quirky interjection of programming amid the birthday boys. "Echoes" is one of the few pieces Herrmann, most famous for his score of Alfred Hitchcock's film "Psycho," churned out for the concert stage. The 20-minute composition was pleasant and dark but didn't offer much in the way of development or forward motion. Despite this challenge, the Fine Arts Quartet skirted boredom by infusing the performance with enthusiasm.
-- Gail Wein