Sept. 26--Leon Redbone opened for John Hiatt, I believe, the first time I saw him perform.
Redbone did as he's done the many times I've seen him since: He shuffled on stage in his hat, sunglasses, suit and ribbon tie with a cane and guitar. Then he played songs I didn't think I'd ever heard, even though they sounded distantly familiar. Redbone's two instruments were his froggy baritone voice and tastefully picked guitar. The banter, too, was crucial and intriguing: strangely anachronistic and detached, sometimes amusingly so.
It was an alien experience watching Redbone play, particularly for someone who grew up in a town that gravitated toward classic rock and Top 40. His music was so simple, yet had a lot to offer. His albums became an American music history text for someone who had thought American music started with Creedence Clearwater Revival. I promptly sought out Redbone's albums, which introduced smart, funny, colorful and sometimes randy writers such as Fats Waller, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Blind Blake, Jack Norworth and more mysterious figures like Public Domain and Traditional.
Redbone's albums made a case for owning the actual recordings, and they still do. Sure, the information on sleeves can easily be found on the Web. But a Redbone record offers the ritual of hearing the songs and interacting with them -- looking at the credits and identifying a composer's name becomes the initiation of an investigation, all while tapping one's foot.
The music Redbone keeps alive is the music that influenced the music that influenced the music of my youth. Obviously, not everybody cares about diagramming a family tree for the music they love. But rare is the American composer whose music is a self-contained fountain. Redbone's albums map out many different rivers.
That's the history. Then there's the mystery.
Redbone has either morphed into the character who sings on stage or he's done a admirable job hiding his true self. Biographical information is scant, and he rarely does interviews. A Toronto Star story reported his real name as Dickran Gobalian, a native of Cyprus, who moved to Canada in the 1960s, where he began playing in folk clubs under the name Leon Redbone. If the story's suggested birth date is correct, Redbone would be 64, but he seems ageless.
But Redbone doesn't come across as a recluse either. He graciously meets fans after shows. And he's appeared in strange places in pop culture: singing the theme for TV's "Mr. Belvedere," appearing in a Budweiser commercial and voicing a snowman in the film "Elf."
To get caught up in biographical detail is to miss the point of the creation of Leon Redbone. The 1960s folk revival restored awareness about influential American blues players. But other worlds of old music and performance were left in mothballs: ragtime and old-time jazz and the sounds of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. By projecting a persona without a detail-filled biography -- essentially a caricature -- Redbone deflected attention from himself (though stylishly so) and back to his songs.
"Who are my major influences?," he asked a fortunate interviewer years ago. "I've basically stolen everything I can get my hands on when it comes to performing on stage."
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