Songman is more than visual caricature

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Leon Redbone is an intentional man of mystery. He keeps his whereabouts under wraps. He has never revealed his age. And there is significant doubt that Redbone is his actual name.

Leon Redbone plays songs from the early 20th century. 
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Leon Redbone plays songs from the early 20th century.

He's not an obstinate man; he just believes the facts of his life are unimportant compared with the performance art persona he developed more than 30 years ago and the song styles for which he has become a steward.

Resplendent in his mustache, straw hat and sunglasses, Redbone revels in presenting old songs to new audiences. Most of his material dates to the first half of the 20th century. He said that although the music is paramount, the visual component has also become part of the act.

"At some point, I came to a fork in the road," he said in a telephone interview. "One way was art. The other was music. I could have very easily become a visual artist, but this is the path I took."

Given his reluctance to talk about personal history and his habit of hiding behind hat and glasses, it's easy to assume that Redbone is all artifice and not much artist. Redbone disagrees.

"I don't think it would be accurate to say I created a person," he said. "Here's a strange parallel. I was thinking of Adolf Hitler -- that mustache. That was, for its time, a standard mustache. He wasn't the only guy that had that, but he is, now, the only guy you think of. People appreciate caricatures."

Although he continues to embrace the visual representation of Leon Redbone, he said wearing the perfect fedora is secondary to singing pop songs, novelty tunes and vaudeville hits.

"It is always the song," he said. "It is not the personality or costumes or showmanship. You have to maintain that integrity.

"That was a fascinating period of music and there was a lot of great music."

Redbone said his initial interest in the jazzy songs of the early 20th century wasn't archival, but as time passes and that music is forgotten, he is both performer and preservationist.

"It has ultimately become that," he said. "But I really don't know if it was that way in the beginning. Those songs were just the things I heard, the things that stayed with me."

Although he's happy sharing the songs with audiences and hopes spreading the music hall gospel lends new life to them, Redbone acknowledged that singing them is a far from selfless act.

"It's true," he said. "I have a selfish connection to the music I perform. It really has to be something you want to do. You can't go out there just trying to satisfy people. If an audience doesn't believe what you are doing is authentic, it will turn away."

Onstage

WHAT: Leon Redbone

WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Paul Simon Theatre at Fort Discovery, 1 Seventh St.

COST: $25; augustaamusements.tix.com


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