The Old Town’s pairing of Butch Hancock and Tommy Ramone — the latter redefining himself in the duo Uncle Monk as an Appalachian-style singer and mandolinist — had more wrinkles going for it than the respective artists do at this advanced stage in their careers. For all the obvious differences between Hancock, the renaissance Flatlander out of Lubbock, Texas, and Ramone, the Hungarian-born, Queens-bred founding drummer of the Ramones, they’re both genial eccentrics who have skirted tradition even while hiding out in it.
In the rather pedestrian acoustic setting with singer-guitarist Claudia Tienan, the artist also known as Tom Erdelyi wasn’t much to write home about. But in his decidedly unpunkish guise — part bushy-tailed hippie, part oddball street character, part high school music teacher — he lent interest in making Hancock, a sneaky radical, seem positively regular.
Which isn’t to say Hancock, homespun philosopher par excellence, isn’t a man of the people: That voice of discontent on War And Peace, his new album of blunt, satirically doused anti-war songs, speaks for a majority of Americans in opposing the unending Iraq campaign, mocking George W. Bush and calling out a power structure that cares more about pumping oil than spilling blood.
Performing solo, Hancock evoked the anti-war protests of other eras even as he set his sights specifically on “desert shields and dirty deals and dim lines drawn in dust.” On the tunefully declarative “Damage Done”, he recalled folk great Phil Ochs’ Vietnam-era “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”. With “The Master Game”, he updated “The Patriot Game”, an IRA-themed Irish folk ballad from the 1950s (also an unacknowledged source of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side”). “When The Good And The Bad Get Ugly” summed up the conundrum of many a conflict: “It’s hard to tell which is which.”
The concert was part of an ongoing Old Town series hosted by Chicago country stalwart Robbie Fulks, who in a curtain-raising chat with the performers, asked Hancock about the anger in his war songs. While acknowledging War And Peace reflects the anger many people are feeling as the Iraq quagmire worsens, Hancock denied he himself was motivated by that emotion. He went so far as to say that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld and the boys should be forgiven for their actions — even if those actions are characterized as evil in the songs — because to do otherwise would only help fuel a cycle of retribution that never leads to anything but more violence.
Appearing two nights after fellow Flatlander Joe Ely hit town as part of a touring songwriter revue and a few weeks after Flatlander Jimmie Dale Gilmore played the Old Town, Hancock took on the challenge of tackling his harmony-built Flatlanders tune “Julia” and made it hum with charm. He sprinkled the set with other non-war favorites including his romantic gem “If You Were A Bluebird” and fellow Lubbock native Terry Allen’s crowd-pleasing Jesus-as-hitchhiker tale “Gimme A Ride To Heaven”. One can only imagine what J.C. would make of the ride W. has taken the U.S. on in the Middle East.