Review: Tom Paxton and Janis Ian – together at last

Two troubadours: Tom Paxton and Janis Ian
30 Mar 2014 @ 8.20 pm
| News
Two troubadours: Tom Paxton and Janis Ian
Two troubadours: Tom Paxton and Janis Ian

Review: Tom Paxton and Janis Ian
Venue: Grand Opera House, March 28

Folksingers, like well-made guitars and vintage wine, improve with age; this view was confirmed when I witnessed two fine exponents of the genre performing together in York.

Tom Paxton and Janis Ian first crossed paths 50 years ago in Greenwich Village when the smoky coffee houses and dingy basement bars in that part of New York resounded to traditional ballads and protest songs as singer-songwriters flexed their musical muscle to create a seminal folk revival.

The Coen brothers attempted to capture the essence of Greenwich Village, circa 1961, in their recent movie Inside Llewyn Davis; one of their characters was based on Paxton, a small town kid from Oklahoma who ended up in New York with his guitar after leaving the US Army.

He first met Ian during a fundraising gig for Broadside magazine and both musicians went on to enjoy successful careers, adding their own standards to the Great American Songbook.

Ian exploded on to the music scene as a precocious teenager in the mid-1960s, courting controversy with Society’s Child, a taboo-breaking song about an inter-racial romance; by then Paxton had established himself on the international folk scene with songs both serious and comical.

Now Paxton and Ian, aged 76 and 62 respectively, shared the same stage on a tour of the United Kingdom; two troubadours with their enthusiasm for live music undiminished by time.

The joy they showed performing together, alongside mandolin virtuoso Robin Bullock, charmed members of the audience who applauded the opening bars of songs they knew so well and needed little encouragement in singing along.

Paxton, the affable granddad of American folk music in his dark sailor’s cap, sang his most popular songs, including The Last Thing On My Mind, Bottle Of Wine and Ramblin’ Boy; while Ian gave spellbinding renditions of Society’s Child, her Grammy winning At Seventeen and other songs equally strong.

She created a moment of pure magic when she unplugged her guitar to sing and play without amps or microphone, her crystal clear voice rising into the darkness like a lark ascending.

The duo used humour to lighten the tone, particularly when Paxton responded to Ian’s impressive acoustic guitar solo with a song about learning to play his Christmas guitar, complete with deliberate duff notes.

However, there was nothing duff about this concert; responding to a well-deserved standing ovation, Paxton and Ian performed a second encore singing, a cappella-style, the Lead Belly classic Goodnight Irene.