Redbone digs into past for music, but won't let you dig into his past

May 27, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Leon Redbone -- the enigmatic singer, composer, guitarist and Madison Avenue pitchman -- has a fantasy.

He'd love to own a radio station, or at least host a radio show.

However, he said, "I'd probably go out of business in a very short time."

"My views on music, and life in general, are completely out of step with everything that's going on," said Mr. Redbone. "I've always been out of step. The only thing that interests me is history, reviewing the past and making something out of it."

And that's what Mr. Redbone -- who performs Saturday as part of The Festival in Easton -- has made a career of: reliving, and obscuring, the past.

He doesn't like to discuss his family, where he grew up, how old he is, or if his name has always been Leon Redbone. But in an interview from his home/office in New Hope, Pa., he's positively expansive about his music -- the vaudeville, early jazz, blues and folk music that he has performed for more than two decades.

The 40-ish Redbone, whose weary drawl sometimes makes him seem older, has spent years researching entertainers from the turn-of-the-century to the late 1920s, and his persona incorporates elements of itinerant musician, hustler and country gentleman.

Visually, the first thing you notice about him is his white, tropical-weight suit and matching fedora. And we can't forget the ever-present dark, dark sunglasses.

So, Leon, don't you ever go without shades?

"Nope. Never take 'em off," he said. "I've got a very behind-the-scenes personality. I don't know how I became a performer. I like to stay discreet, out of the public eye, very low-key."

In the last year, he has appeared on the ABC drama "Life Goes On" and "The Tonight Show," and has continued TV- and radio-commercial work, so his persona has become less behind-the-scenes. But his music remains low-key.

Mr. Redbone's songs are delivered in a pinched, baritone mumble accompanied by his amplified acoustic guitar, as well as cornet, trombone and bass saxophone. Twentieth-century technical innovations such as synthesizers have no place in this music.

There's also not much space for percussion.

"The music doesn't really need it," he said. And if he wanted to use a drummer, Mr. Redbone said, "finding the right kind of drummer is not an easy thing to do."

He's had a long-standing interest in world music. But, naturally, it has to meet the Redbone requirement: It has to have been performed before the 1940s.

"I went to a store and bought a whole bunch of things from the international section," he said. "Eighty percent of it was garbage."

What he really likes is early-20th-century Russian folk and choral music, Egyptian and Hungarian music, and Argentine tangos.

"If it were left up to me, I would sing things that might not make sense. Singing Carlos Gardel [tangos] . . . to me would have been valid, but would not have been readily accepted."

Leon Redbone will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Avalon Theatre in Easton. Ticket prices range from $12.50 to $25. Call (301) 820-5775 or 820-6716 for information.

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