Kick a piano down a stairwell and you get ‘Tango Till They’re Sore‘. Roll a drum kit down after it and you end up with ‘Big Black Mariah‘. Try and throw your rich, dead Uncle Phil along with them and his ghost will just float and gloat because you never found his hidden money.
If you haven’t heard the ‘Rain Dogs’ album before you should quit reading this now and give it a spin. We could sit here all day and still fail to come even close to describing it….
…Did you give it a listen? Insane, isn’t it.
Insane, but also genius. The album was released 26 years ago while Tom Waits was in his remarkable transition from barroom brawling bawler, wailing out tunes such as ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking‘, into the Harry Partch-esque hero who will hit the bejesus out of any object so long as it gives up a good rhythm when he unleashed ‘Swordfishtrombones‘ in 1983.
Last Wednesday the Barbican hosted an evening’s tribute to the album featuring the likes of St. Vincent, The Tiger Lillies and Arthur H. They were much more than monkeys to Waits’ organ, but his presence hung over the evening like the alcohol-soaked breath of the drunken uncle at a wedding.
The night was split into 10-15 minute sections where each soloist came on stage to perform two or three numbers. It wasn’t always completely clear who was performing sometimes but that mattered little, the whole thing was a cigarette-stained, bourbon-swilling celebration from start to finish, each artist giving their own take on the songs, doffing their tattered, rain-soaked trilbies to music that sounds as vital today as it did back in ’85. Forget Rod Stewart’s risible cover of ‘Downtown Train‘, tonight’s performers weren’t afraid of getting dirt under their fingernails.
Waits himself rarely performs carbon copies of his compositions, instead letting them breathe, stretch their legs and run around. The exemplary musicians performing – including ex-Pogue David Coulter, Elvis Costello’s side-kick Steve Naive (and house band leader from Jonathan Ross’ ‘Tonight’ show, for those with long memories) and Polar Bear’s wild-haired Seb Rochford – took the brakes off and let the music follow the singers as they drove us off-road, into territories best visited with the collar pulled up and the hat pushed down. They wowed us using instruments like the Musical Saw, Ondes Martenot, Cristal Baschet and Glass Harmonica – all worth checking out for their sheer breath-taking beauty.
The Barbican was also the setting for David Coulter’s 2004 performance of Tom Waits’ ‘The Black Rider‘, a musical fable he co-wrote with theatre director Robert Wilson and beat writer William S. Burroughs and starred Marianne Faithfull.
By Max Moritz