The Kennedy Center Concert Hall was nearly packed and the stage crowded with musicians and friends Saturday night as Tom Rush celebrated his 25th anniversary in folk music.
Over the course of three hours and dozens of songs, Rush and his fellow performers not only celebrated the past and the traditions that link one generation of folk musicians to the next, but they also made the future for acoustic music look bright indeed.
The staging was as cozy as could reasonably be expected in the Concert Hall. Tables were set up behind the musicians so that members of the Washington folk community, including songwriters Bill and Taffy Danoff and singer Jonathan Edwards, could be seated close by. And much of the music cast an intimate spell as well, beginning with Nanci Griffith's tenderly evocative songs about growing up in the South.
Griffith was followed by several other young and promising songwriters: Robert Earl Keen Jr., Bill Morrissey, and Buskin and Batteau. Keen was the evening's revelation. In introducing him, Griffith likened him to such gifted songwriters as Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark; her lofty comparison nevertheless seemed right on target by the time Keen completed his wry, whimsical and all-too-brief performance.
Time didn't allow Rush and his well-known guests Peter Rowan, Mark O'Connor and Emmylou Harris to stray far from familiar material. Rowan was in especially good voice, and his vocally demanding Tex-Mex repertoire was greatly enhanced by O'Connor's sensitive and imaginative fiddling.
Harris opened with a gorgeous version of Jesse Winchester's "Songbird" and filled out her set with other worthy ballads by Van Zandt, Paul Simon, and John Lennon and Paul McCartney, each seemingly written for her breathtaking soprano.
Staggered throughout the show, Rush's performances neatly combined the best of his recordings. Confessional ballads such as "No Regrets" and "Urge for Going" contrasted sharply with the sax-powered "Lost My Drivin' Wheel" and the surging vocal choruses that made "Galveston Flood," the evening's first encore, so compelling.