For a man whose music seems timeless, Leon Redbone prefers to immerse himself in the here and now.
"What I do and what I record only work for the moment," Redbone says in his unmistakably croaky drawl. "That’s basically all I hope for in a performance, because that’s what I think a song is: It has to reach out and grab you for one moment. It can even be a single note which defines the entire song."
On AnyTime, Redbone’s eleventh record and his first for the Blue Thumb label, the singer-guitarist continues his very real love affair with tunes from the turn-of-the-century, flapper-era radio ditties, Depression-spawned ragtime and folk-jazz. Yet there is always something oddly modern about this musician—his lyrical satire and emotional cynicism tend to wear well with any generation.
"After my first few records, some had dubbed what I did as camp. Of course, these were insensitive people who didn’t understand the depth of my artistic passion," Redbone says, sarcasm in tow. "No doubt it seemed that way to some—but fortunately they haven’t been heard from lately."
The entire mood of AnyTime conjures images of a more relaxed period of American history—when pop music meant melodies, harmonies, and finesse, all unaffected by modern gloss and gadgetry. But the record percolates with a conviction that, like its title, is appealing to any audience, any time.
"The art of recording, as much as it has progressed over the years, hasn’t actually improved much," Redbone says. "I still maintain that most of the great sounds captured come from the 1920s and a little later, but certainly not recently."
Since his 1975 Warner Brothers gold record debut, On the Track, Redbone has defied other people’s expectations while consistently building up his own myth. Beyond what he has exposed through his music, the artist prefers to reveal nothing else. There is no consensus on how he first flirted with—and eventually came to personify—the vast styles associated with the gramophone era.
Redbone just seems to be perpetually famous, whether making numerous television appearances (his network debut came on the second season of Saturday Night Live), popularizing the classic beer jingle "This Bud’s For You," adding his deft touch to various soundtracks, or even being lampooned in a Far Side cartoon.
It’s been nearly seven years since Redbone’s last recording. During that time, he’s kept a fairly grueling international tour schedule. "It took about a year," he says of recording AnyTime, his first new studio effort since 1994’s Whistling in the Wind. "I’m working toward the perfect time between records: a decade."
For AnyTime, Redbone gathered an arsenal of gifted musicians, who contribute everything from trombone to clarinet to fife. While the majority of solos on the album are taken by guitarist Frank Vignola—on a borrowed Gibson guitar of Redbone’s that was once owned by 1920s jazz virtuoso Eddie Lang—the primary acoustic and occasional banjo is performed by the songster.
"I use a style which allows me to sing and play at the same time," Redbone explains. "It doesn’t really lend itself to playing single note lead lines: those notes are incorporated into the rhythm. It’s a fingerpicking style similar to certain Portuguese accompaniment."
Redbone’s fingerstyle skill leaps out on tunes such as "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree," where his dueling banjo and acoustic work ripens during a double-time breakdown. His signature vocals are in rare form on AnyTime, whether lazily crooning on "Apple Tree" while backed by the legendary a capella act The Persuasions, or oozing charm like a rural Bing Crosby on "So Tired of Livin’ All Alone."
Another standout is the whimsical "Your Feet’s Too Big," recorded several years ago for use as the title song of TV’s Harry and the Hendersons and only now making its appearance on disc. The album’s highlight (and consequently Redbone’s favorite track) may be the torch song "Blossoms On Broadway," recorded in England during one of his many junkets there. With a haunting piano score flanked by harmonica and clarinet, Redbone reinterprets this New York City tribute as a torch song lament to a vintage era.
In conjunction with the release of AnyTime, five of Redbone’s previous albums will be reissued, including Red to Blue, No Regrets, Sugar, and Up A Lazy River, all on Blue Thumb Records. Christmas Island will be available for Christmas 2001.
The musician will embark on a widespread road trip in support of AnyTime, where his front-porch delivery and cagey demeanor will be introduced to a new generation of music lovers. What manner of mental process will be brewing beneath his ubiquitous fedora and dark glasses is anybody’s guess.
"There are two ways of performing: One is to run out onstage and basically let loose and communicate with the audience on a personal level," Redbone explains, "the other one is to completely ignore the entire situation and try to concentrate on what it is you are doing and at the same time, not dwell on it, disconnect from your physical surroundings—which is contrary to performing, really. So I don’t know if performing is necessarily a good definition for what I do. It may be closer to a séance than anything else."
The strong material from AnyTime will no doubt make for some entertaining live shows. It’s a varied and endearing collection that will please both Redbone’s most devoted fans as well as lucky listeners discovering him for the first time.