When Leon Redbone first began performing in the 1970s, the old-time blues and jazz he was singing was hard to find.
Part of the appeal of this music for Redbone over the years has been digging through old 78 rpm records, discovering little-known songs by little-known artists from the 1920s and ’30s. He’s spent four decades digging these songs up and performing them authentically, with 15 live and studio albums to his name and endorsements from Bob Dylan and the late Johnny Carson.
Now with the Internet offering downloaded music of any genre immediately at people’s fingertips, these old songs are easily found — from Redbone’s own recordings to the original source material. And he is still trying to wrap his head around the change.
“Now you can more or less find everything, whether it’s good or bad,” he said.
with Bo Jest the Kosmic Konjurer
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $28
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“It isn’t really much different from wholesale now. . . . In other words, it doesn’t mean anything to anybody, even people who have the technology that’s up to date and record things off of whatever the heck it is out there, wholesale or downloads. People are busy just shoving it into their hard drives, and they may not have any interest in any of the music that they’re downloading. It’s an explosion of a strange proportion — insanity, consumerism, hoarding.”
Even with these shifts in the music business, he hasn’t changed his approach over the years. His next performance is tonight at The Egg, where he will once again share his love for the old Tin Pan Alley classics, jazz standards and blues favorites he has built his career on.
“I don’t know why people do anything that they do; all I know is that I was introduced to this music very early on and I’m pretty much the same person I was,” he said. “There’s the same sentiment that I’ve always had with regard to music. I love music from all over the world that has the same sentiment as the music I’m able to perform. If it was good 100 years ago, I’m sure it’s good now.”
The Egg performance is part of a short weekend run of Northeast shows — Redbone usually only tours for a few weeks at a time, at most. Regular pianist Paul Asaro will accompany Redbone’s acoustic guitar and trademark baritone vocals.
Touch of vaudeville
Redbone is known for his live performances that combine his period-accurate playing and singing with strokes of vaudeville-influenced humor. He maintains the old-timey feel in his appearance, donning sunglasses, bow tie and Panama hat for all his shows. Over the years, his many appearances on “The Tonight Show,” “Saturday Night Live” and a voice acting credit as a snowman in the 2003 comedy “Elf” have brought his music and comical persona to wider audiences across the country and world.
But for him, it all comes back to the music he first fell in love with growing up in Toronto. He first gained attention in the early ’70s, when Dylan heard him perform at the Mariposa Folk Festival.
Over the years he’s become known as one of the few authentic performers of this style of music, which hasn’t always been easy.
“The whole of the material I do is from the past, and I’m quite comfortable with it, always have been,” he said. “It’s probably still completely obscure to a lot of people. . . . You couldn’t find it years ago, and if you find somebody who has it somewhere, they tend to — over the years, they’ve guarded all these things. Collectors are very careful about who hears this material, who has a copy of the material.”
Audiences of all ages
Through songs written by Irving Berlin and Hank Williams, as well as his own period-inspired originals, Redbone has managed to draw in audiences of all ages, despite some critical backlash over the years.
“The sentiment, that World War II sentiment, I think it would be a universal thing, within that society or any other society,” he said. “People resonate to those sounds; some do, and some don’t, and it’s always been that way.”
Despite keeping busy on the road, he has kept quiet on the recording end of things. His last studio album was 2001’s “Any Time”; in 2005, he released a live album from a show recorded in 1992. Although he is always finding new (or rather, old) material to incorporate into shows, he’s not in any hurry to record again.
“It would probably be an opportunity for certain more of these critics of mine to either like or dismiss it as another one of these Leon Redbone recordings,” he said. “But I have nothing to do with it. Most of these songs have been around longer than most of these people have been around the world. . . . It’s kind of a ridiculous world that we live in. New isn’t always better; that’s the number one thing I’d put on a list of definitions of how to view and critique anything.”