Leon Redbone – Strings and Jokes / Live in Bremen 1977 | Album Review

Leon Redbone – Strings and Jokes / Live in Bremen 1977

Radiobremen / MIG (Made in Germany Music)

16 tracks | 71 minutes

Leon Redbone was seemingly spit out onto the scene fully developed around 1972. Somehow he missed the 60’s or not? A folkster? A ragtimer? He was a Tin Pan Alley advocate that was certainly resurrecting songs that were old. He went back further than even Bob Dylan and his lauded Basement Tapes did. One thing for sure is he was a sort of lazy virtuoso guitar finger picker never letting the fast runs outshine their musical purpose, something newer players should take notice of. He was a flim flam story peddler of the finest vintage. He could play the harmonica and sing a muted trumpet with his specific soul shining through, no amplification needed other than to project it out into the unsuspecting world. He’s retired now but he has left a whole lot of back catalog filled with wonders. This live recording of two concerts on one disc is of him in his prime in front of adoring audiences in Bremen Germany. He mumbles like a drunk on his last binge. He teases the audience into believing they’re seeing a ghost from the distant musical past with his trademark sunglasses and wide brimmed fedora, white suit and string tie. Was he from Philly? Greece? Canada? Nobody knows and nobody cares.

On this disc he’s with his band (just Tuba player Jonathan Dorn) for the first 8 tracks recorded on January 12, 1977 at the concert hall Die Glocke. He’s amply accompanied by himself October 3 of the same year at Post-Aula. The mostly repeated set is for the fan who wants it all and why not? No tune is ever played the same, so being all inclusive leaves no stone unturned.

No joke is ever delivered simply as a punch line but more a dry spit take. Is he joking all the time? We’ll never know but when he plays the music he really blows like the wind through the material effortlessly and that is the point. He never lets the music get in the way of the entertaining. There are so many lessons to be learned from him. One being that when he plays the harmonica you hear the man’s soul not his technique. His technique, played on a rack no less, is flawless and expressive. Yeah he sounds drunk with his vocals but that’s by design. Surely he’s sober when playing the guitar parts. There is a bit of rat packer Dean Martin’s slight slurring along with a dash of dandy and a hint of sultry vixen. Fine wine that he is but apparently he enjoyed the German’s Schnapp’s they introduced him to for after the show somewhat more. It’s all an act more or less, an act he perfected by doing various spots on famous US TV shows like Saturday Night Live.

The first song on the CD “Champagne Charlie” starts things off on the right foot. “Rogueing and a stealing is my game.” This fanciful marginal type of character that doesn’t exist anymore or never did in the first place is brought to life. A traditional song, it could be a child’s tune except for the bad living the guy does. The wheels on the bus go round and round…such fun!

“I Ain’t Got Nobody”, a Roger A. Graham song (music by Spencer Williams), widely known as part of the Louis Prima medley “Just a Gigolo”, adapted from a 1928 Austrian tango called “Schőner Gigalo, amer Gigalo” (Ah the German connection!), but here it’s simply the old original, no gigolos required.
Leon goes on to do all the hits you’ve never missed like “Ain’t Misbehavin’”; “Has Anybody Seen My Gal”; “When I Take My Sugar To Tea”. There’s also the nonsensical funny “Diddie Wa Diddie” and “Polly Wolly Doodle” which are both ultimately songs that need no explanation, just there for their ability to please all. If you love pure artistry recorded impeccably in its natural environment, then this disc is for you. This is probably the best introduction to his oeuvre.

For a career as varied and as prolific as Leon’s, this is as good a place to start your love affair as any. If you ain’t misbehavin’, get this disc and pop the cork. You’ll be misbehaving in no time.

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