Tom Rush – The Circle Game

Crawdaddy Features Tom Rush

This article originally appeared in Issue 16/17 of Crawdaddy on June/July 1968.

Tom Flush has always been just about the best performer of other people’s songs in what we used to call the folk movement. On any smooth summer night in Cambridge, you could drop into Club 47 and get a kick out of Tom Flush emanating sex appeal at the high school crowd and giving the rest of us a highly polished set or two of songs by Ric Von Schmidt and others of the (then) Boston crowd, all with his characteristic embellishment. He really knows when to throw in grace notes. And he uses his entire vocal range, from a bass growl (“Who Do You Love” on Take a Little Walk with Me) to that high-pitched whine on “Duncan and Brady” (on one of the earlier Prestige albums). In short, he works hard over his material.

And he’s always varied the material so you can’t quite pin him down and say “that’s a Tom Rush-type song.” Every song is his, while he’s doing it. I think somehow when he practices he says to himself, “Do I believe this, these words I’m mouthing?” Until, when he’s ready to perform, he projects real commitment to his material.

When an artist has perfected his tools to the point where he’s always dependable for a good clean performance, that’s something to be valued. Even if he doesn’t happen to write all his own songs. Tom Rush’s albums have always been very solid anthologies, pleasant variety of material, fine though not brilliant guitar work, with a few really notable cuts. Take a Little Walk with Me, which never got half the attention it deserved, had at least five great cuts (“Joshua Gone Barbados,” “Sugar Babe,” “Love’s Made a Fool of You,” “You Can’t Tell a Book by the Cover,” and “On the Road Again”).

Now The Circle Game links Rush with Paul Harris, who arranges all that background into a coherent team, everyone contributing his bit to Tom’s basically guitar-oriented interpretation. Listen to the timing of any one of the songs for the tension-release pattern of guitar playing that has always marked Tom’s style, and hear how the whole instrumentation complex enforces it.

The only real mistake is still pleasant: “Sunshine, Sunshine” seems to be arranged for a group of voices, not Tom’s alone. He is overshadowed at several points by the lushness. He has a few of the same problems in “Shadow Dream Song,” but the lyric images still stand out memorably (“a laughing dappled shadow”).

“Tin Angel” is parallel to “Shadow Dream Song,” but completely successful. It’s a lazy-sad walk along which moods are explored for a moment and then pass, images falling like leaves. And Joni Mitchell, who wrote it, is at her very best in “Urge for Going.” Every word has the feeling of inevitability, yet there’s no heaviness: a river flowing. Tom Rush has never performed better. And he equals it in Joni’s “The Circle Game.” Tom’s slowness, his seeming easiness, carry a beautiful evocation of a despair-hope cycle, everything always different, everything always the same.

You’re most conscious of the arrangement in “The Glory of Love.” It’s a virtuoso piece right from the lead-in, with a thoroughly up-to-date command of kinetics. Tom is on top all the way, using his whole range of vocal effects. It’s not nostalgic at all; it’s new. “So Long,” on the other hand, is pure triumph of cliché. Why did we like all that stuff in the late fifties? Because of the pure force of the music; it had a drive, an impetus that carried it beyond the mere words. Body music. It bathes you, that good old rock ‘n’ roll. And “Something in the Way She Moves” proves that it can still be done, anachronistic as it may seem.

For the guitar fans (of which I am one) we have “Rockport Sunday.” The tension-release is most obvious in the timing of this piece. It is waves of music you can feel, ebb and flow, very, very familiar, yet new. It’s refreshing to be reminded every once in a while that a plain old guitar, played with technical proficiency, can equal the lyric qualities of a sitar or twelve-string. And it’s a real advance over “Mole’s Moan,” for a long time my favorite guitar piece. Listen to it when you’re all alone. It makes the air feel clean.

If you somehow missed “On the Road Again” and aren’t hip to the fact that Tom Rush can write a very groovy song all by himself, listen to “No Regrets.” Those guitar kinetics are carried to highest perfection in this arrangement, a choking progression, a determination to forge ahead. Tom Rush has no regrets, regardless. He lets us down gently with a short band at the end, wind ripple on a deep pond, then quietness. A very fine album.

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