Paxton seems to effortlessly embody the spirit of early music including ragtime, ’20s jazz and Dust Bowl–era blues, delivering them through a dizzying display of virtuosity on guitar, piano, banjo, and lately, fiddle. And his delivery in dress, manner, speech, and humor of the period is so spot-on that it seems impossible that it is all contained within one so young.
He can usually be found in smart overalls and a starched white shirt buttoned to the top, with a pocket watch and fob and either a derby hat or yarmulke topping his cherubic face. With his perpetually wry expression, Paxton is part old-school bluesman, part trickster. From looks alone, you might think he was the great-grandson of Willie Dixon or Lemon Jefferson.
Paxton’s talents first came to light a few years ago on the Los Angeles folk circuit with his sometimes playing partner and fellow musical time-machine traveler, Frank Fairfield. Festival appearances and small gigs around the country followed, and now Paxton’s base of operations is New York City, where he’s an essential player in the old-time music scene surrounding Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theater.
When Paxton sits down to a piano, the spirit of Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Willie “The Lion” Smith springs forth in a cascade of notes raining from the soundboard. When he picks up the guitar, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake are suddenly freed from the crackling Paramount shellac grooves that have imprisoned them for over 80 years. And when Paxton takes up the five-string banjo, the corn liquor-fueled manic urgency of Uncle Dave Macon careens around the room in a dizzying frenzy of old-time delight.
After having discovered the origins of American vernacular music at such an early age, Pax-ton seems hell-bent on encompassing the entirety of the tradition on multiple instruments with the slightly rough-around-the-edges impatience of youth. While his vocal approach is decidedly laid back and understated, his musicianship is marked by urgency and enthusiasm.
Paxton appears to have absorbed more of the history and essence of prewar music than most performers three or four times his age, and there’s little doubt that we can expect exciting things in the future from this emerging young artist.