Circle game continues with Tom Rush backed by relatively young Matt Nakoa at NJ show

by JAY LUSTIG
nj blues folk listings march

ADRIENNE POLLARD DESIGN

Tom Rush will perform at the Mt. Tabor Tabernacle in Parsippany, March 22.

Tom Rush, who lives in Maine, does not perform in New Jersey very often. But having recently released his first album in six years, Gardens Old, Flowers New, he will be at the At the Tabernacle series at the Mt. Tabor Tabernacle in Parsippany, March 22, with Cheryl Wheeler opening.

Rush, whose career stretches back to the 1960s — when he released his best-known song, the bittersweet ballad “No Regrets,” and helped popularize the work of then-little-known singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor — will be backed by Matt Nakoa, who wasn’t even born in that era. Nakoa, a singer-songwriter in his own right, produced Gardens Old, Flowers New. And he will perform a few of his own songs in Parsippany, in addition to backing Rush.

“He’s a monster,” says Rush. “He steals the show, and I pay him to do it! I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Rush met Nakoa in 2015, and has worked with him on and off since then. He says Nakoa “prodded” him to make Gardens Old, Flowers New, which takes its name from a line Rush uses in two of its songs.

“He got sick of me talking about, ‘Maybe someday we’ll make a record,’ and just went ahead and booked a studio and hired some brilliant players, and away we go,” says Rush, who adds that in addition to producing, Nakoa played “electric guitar, acoustic guitar, grand piano, rickety upright piano, farfisa (organ), synthesizer, slide trombone, and sang harmonies, did hand claps, and played bass on one tune, because we needed a bass part, or he didn’t like the bass part we had.

MATT NAKOA

“He was a very active producer. Most producers that I’ve worked with hire brilliant players and let the players play what they feel like, unless it’s way off track and they say, ‘Could you play something quieter?’ or ‘… something more energetic,’ and the player obliges. But Matt was in there, occasionally doing note-by-note instructions to the players.”

Rush said he first met Nakoa when he was preparing for a concert at Symphony Hall in Boston. “I had some guest artists coming and I needed them to learn some new songs ahead of time. So I went to a friend’s house and I was making my demos in the basement, and my friend said, ‘Do you need any keyboards on anything? I’ve got this kid here who’s really good.’ I said no. My friend said, ‘He’s really, really good.’ So I said, ‘Oh, OK. I’m getting the studio for free. Just one song.’

“So he goes upstairs and wakes up Matt who said, ‘Tom who? No, I wanna sleep, get out of here.’ But he got dragged downstairs and played on one song, and then he played on another song, and then he played on all the songs because it just sounded so good. And at the end of the afternoon I asked him, ‘Would you like to do a show with me on the 28th of December?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, maybe I can clear my calendar. What club is it?’ And I said, ‘It’s actually Symphony Hall.’ And he allowed as how he probably could clear his calendar.”

They continued doing shows together. “I remember, I had a gig at a place called The Blue Ocean on the coast of either New Hampshire or Massachusetts — right at the border,” says Rush. “We were supposed to get there two hours before soundcheck, so we could rehearse. Neither of us had thought about Friday traffic. We got there barely in time to do a quick soundcheck and then get onstage and do the show. And he played as though he’d been playing with me for years. It was quite unnerving, really, that he could be that good, cold.”

The cover of Tom Rush’s album, “Gardens Old, Flowers New.”

Most of the songs on Gardens Old, Flowers New are fairly recently written, Rush says, but one of them, the upbeat, inspirational “Glory Road,” is more than 50 years old. “I did it in a few concerts and forgot about it. And the only recording of it was an aircheck from (the late Philadelphia radio DJ) Gene Shay’s show. I played that for Matt and he said, ‘Oh, that’s a good song. Let’s do that one.’ ”

Another older composition is “Siena’s Song,” a sweet, playful song about Rush’s daughter that he wrote when she was a baby. She is now 25.

Rush’s early albums such as The Circle Game (1968), Wrong End of the Rainbow (1970) and Ladies Love Outlaws (1974) were made up, mostly, of covers. And he hasn’t released many albums since the mid-’70s. But his last one, Voices (2018), was the first of his career to feature only self-penned songs. And on Gardens Old, Flowers New, all of the songs are originals, too, except for the traditional blues, “Gimme Some of It.” And he actually wrote new lyrics for “Gimme Some of It,” too.

Still, he doesn’t exactly qualify as prolific.

“I just get too busy with things that seem important, and neglect the thing that’s actually important,” says Rush, referring to songwriting.

Of the songs he has written, “No Regrets” has been covered, by far, the most, including the 1975 version by The Walker Brothers that was a Top 10 hit in The United Kingdom and several other European countries. “That put my first two kids through college, so I’m fond of that one,” Rush says.

Tom Rush’s 1968 album “The Circle Game” contains “No Regrets” and other songs.

He calls the 1982 synth-pop version by Midge Ure “really ponderous … and there was a hip hop version that I didn’t even recognize when somebody played it for me. Emmylou Harris has a really, really nice country version. I didn’t know until very recently that Harry Belafonte had done it.

“Part of what I enjoy is the differences between all the different ways people have done it.”

In addition to recording and touring, Rush launched, during the pandemic, an online series called “Rockport Sundays” (after his instrumental “Rockport Sunday,” from his Circle Game album), in which he offers songs and stories, weekly, to subscribers. (For information, visit patreon.com/tomrush.)

The latest installment featured a guest appearance by Wheeler.

“I’ve known her for a long time but I haven’t seen her much, for a decade or more,” Rush says of Wheeler, who took some time off in 2022 and 2023 to deal with personal issues but returned to performing last summer. “It’s great that she’s back on the road.”

Tom Rush (with Matt Nakoa) and Cheryl Wheeler will perform at the At the Tabernacle series at The Mt. Tabor Tabernacle in Parsippany, March 22 at 7:30 p.m. Visit atthetabernacle.com.

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