Enigmatic folk-jazz icon brings eclectic performance

From Lady Gaga’s outlandish bubble costume to Justice’s massive wall of amplifiers, the exaggerated antics of musicians and their concerts can be just as enjoyable and thrilling as the music itself.

But sometimes there’s nothing better than a man and his guitar.

Folk-jazz icon Leon Redbone is coming to the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts next Wednesday and will be bringing his relaxed signature style along with him. Jim Della Croce, Redbone’s publicist, said audiences can look forward to all of Redbone’s usual charm, including his unique getup.

“Panama hat, dark glasses, moustache, Gibson guitar, 200-watt light bulb and lamp, man at a piano and some of the finest music man has ever written and performed,” Croce said.

Many musicians would have run out of steam or retired after nearly 40 years of performing and recording, but Redbone never stops. He has 15 albums and has performed songs for various television shows and ads, including Budweiser’s “This Bud’s For You” and the PBS kids show “Between the Lions.” A ballet called “Paper Tiger” was also set to 11 of Redbone’s songs in 1996.

Redbone was the voice of the insightful, Panama-hat-wearing snowman in the 2003 movie “Elf” and sang one of the most charming renditions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with She & Him singer Zooey Deschanel for the film’s closing credits. And now he’s on tour again.

“Leon keeps a steady pace without burning out. Bob Dylan does the never-ending tour and Leon is somewhere in between,” Croce said.

Surprisingly little is actually known about Redbone other than how prolific and talented he is. Even at the beginning of his career in the early 1970s, Redbone was extremely protective of his privacy.

His career took off in 1971 after Bob Dylan heard Redbone’s unique baritone covering blues, jazz and ragtime songs from the 1920s and ‘30s at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario.

“Bob Dylan noticed Leon early on and the rest is history,” Croce said.

In keeping with his enigmatic persona, Redbone has claimed he was born in 1670 and 1929 and used to lead Blind Blake, a 1920s blues and ragtime guitarist, around New Orleans. No one knows what Redbone’s real name is, his age or where he came from , but it’s all irrelevant when he starts singing.

Looking past the three-piece suits, trademark hat and glasses and thick moustache, Redbone is a master acoustic guitarist who has stunned the likes of Bonnie Raitt and John Prine with his skill. Many have said his talent with his guitar and piano makes everything look easy, and that’s typically what his live performances are all about — ease. A mixture of dry comedy, wit, and a wide variety of songs — from pop to vaudeville to southern blues — is what any audience member can expect at Redbone’s show. There’s no set list of songs, but one is guaranteed to come away entertained, despite the fact that Redbone does not consider himself to be an entertainer.

“Anything goes with Mr. Redbone, and nothing is ever carved in stone,” Croce said.

But it’s likely that longtime Redbone fans will get a chance to hear his deep-voiced renditions of “Sweet Sue,” “Alabama Jubilee,” “Ain’t Misbehavin'” or “Diddy Wah Diddy” before the evening is over.

The rest is unknown about the man of mystery, but the uncertainty may be the best part about Redbone and his performances.

“The man can do anything he puts his mind to … although I’ve never seen him belly dance,” Croce joked.

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