Redbone has a penchant for tunes largely born in the 1920s, but don’t go to the show expecting a live version of Charlie Chaplin’s record collection. A 30-year career in music doesn’t happen just by polishing a few dozen antique songs. His vaudeville-inspired suit and signature Panama hat are a deliberate choice, but the dated elements of his shows speak of a passion more than suit-deep.
“I used to listen to Chopin at one point in time,” Redbone says. “The music, I found it to be all about sentiment, all about desire.”
What Redbone really brings into the spotlight is a simple love for authentic music, something he feels hit its peak during the Great Depression. “As the decades fly by, very little has gone onto the airwaves which I think would have encouraged musicians making better music in the coming years.” So, knowing exactly where he feels the most creatively cozy, Redbone holds onto the Tin Pan Alley classics.
He built his reputation as a singer, whistler and strummer by covering authentic numbers such as “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” “My Good Gal’s Gone” and “Lazy Bones.” His sauntering voice and guitar chops earned him the attention of Bob Dylan, who offered Redbone the first deal on his record label. Redbone opted not to take him up on the offer and instead signed with Warner Brothers Records in the 1970s.
More recently, he sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” alongside Zooey Deschanel during the closing credits of the Will Ferrell comedy Elf. He tends to stay on the fringe of the public’s peripheral vision, singing the theme song for the Mr. Belvedere sitcom and appearing on the occasional children’s show on PBS.
He doesn’t expect every member of the audience to be a devout fan of jazz, ragtime and blues. He does, however, ask for consideration. “Even smartalecks are good craftsmen,” he says. “I sure hope people like the same music I do, but if not, I hope they can find it interesting.”
He wields a raspy set of vocal chords that bring to mind an image of Tom Waits and Johnny Cash splitting a bottle of moonshine, waxing poetic about how the Internet killed the good ol’ days and how music is always a- changing.
“I’ve only recorded one, maybe two or three songs I’ve created,” Redbone says. “My interest is in gathering the past. The best way to do that, as far as I can tell, is to sing its songs. The sentiments of those years were just simply wonderful.”
Redbone is known to have the stage antics of a living caricature. During his Cazenovia show, he might attempt to mend a wobbly microphone stand with a wad of chewing gum. Don’t be surprised if he claims to have written one or two tunes from the Depression era. It shouldn’t come as a shock if he opts to whistle in place of lyrics. It’s a part of his charm, a facet of his personality that makes audiences pause to appreciate some of the earliest music of America’s history—even though Redbone is originally from Canada.
As a man who is “always on the road, except for when not on the road,” Redbone considers his onstage self to be wedged between improvisation and indulgence. It’s a welcoming spot, as he puts a gleaming finish on the music of old America.
Redbone isn’t a fellow who plans far in advance. He avoids air travel when touring, preferring to arrive by automobile with a suitcase full of audiobooks and gizmos. For anyone who missed seeing Johnny Cash live, or who saw Bob Dylan at the Oncenter in 2007 and left feeling slighted, or even for those who need a spoonful of sentimentality, a dose of old Redbone will make those aches disappear.
Leon Redbone will perform at Cazenovia College’s Catherine Cummings Theater, 16 Lincklaen St., Cazenovia, on Friday, Aug. 5, 8 p.m. Tickets are $30, available at www.brownpapertickets.com; by calling (800) 838-3006; or visiting Cazenovia Jewelry on Albany Street or Sound Garden in Armory Square.