Monday, 28 July 2008

Tom Waits

Grand Rex, Paris, Friday 25 July 2008


The most expensive concert ticket I've ever bought turned out to be worth every euro. The Grand Rex is a stunning 1930s art deco cinema that seats just under 3,000. Design features include palm trees, a rich blue ceiling dotted with glimmering stars and a balcony that looks like a fort in the Sahara. Tom Waits fits this theatrical decor perfectly and it was wonderful to return to Paris eight years after I first saw Tom here (especially since this time I was in the seventh row rather than the balcony).

The set list largely avoided the 70s and early-80s recordings although Tom Traubert's Blues, played on piano, satisfied nostalgics I'm sure. Highlights for me were Real Gone's shout'n'clankers, Hoist That Rag and Make It Rain; Poor Edward, the tragic ballad from Alice about the unfortunate boy who "on the back of his head had another face... it was his devil twin" and Tom's menacing take on Heigh-Ho. Disney tried to sue Waits for changing the lyrics to the Seven Dwarfs marching song and although it sounds nothing like what's in Snow White (it's more Demented than Dopey) the words are identical.


Songs aside, what's always most incredible about Tom Waits' shows are their theatricality. This man can milk a crowd and we happily lapped up his stomping, exaggerated bows and weird hand gestures. And then, of course, there is that voice. Earlier in the day my friend Ed, a fair-weather Tom Waits fan, told me he'd often thought the voice he'd heard on record was a production trick. What initially hit me the first time I saw Waits was how powerful and varied his voice is. As my friend Dave said, after sitting next to me, transfixed for more than two hours, "It doesn't sound like it should come from a human".

Also worth noting is Tom's excellent band which features his eldest son on percussion and this evening his youngest lad on "assistant clarinet and saxophone". I think it's the first time I've ever seen a sax on stage with Waits and many of the arrangements of familiar songs were quite different from what I'd previously heard.

If you want to hear what all the fuss is about, or re-live the experience if you've been lucky enough to see any of the Glitter & Doom tour, NPR are streaming and podcasting the 5 July Atlanta gig in full.

Related posts

Waitin' For Waits - my anticipation for Paris

Carnival Saloon: Tom Waits - all my obsessive ramblings

Related links'

NPR: Tom Waits In Concert - hear the Atlanta show in full

NPR: The Whiskey Voice Returns - good interview on Orphans release

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Waiting For Waits

Please excuse the even more than usual level of Tom Waits devotion in these parts at present. I'm giddy at the prospect of my trip to Paris to see the great man perform at the Grand Rex on Friday night. That said, it's the perfect opportunity to share this oddity from Richie Cole's 1979 Hollywood Madness album. Eddie Jefferson sings a tribute to Tom before being joined by the tardy guest vocalist towards the end of the track. It must be heard to be believed.

MP3: Richie Cole & Eddie Jefferson - Waitin' For Waits

Tom himself has done a superb job of building my anticipation for Friday's show. He played an impressive 63 different songs on his 13-date American tour from every part of his career. I hope we get a reprise of Diamond In Your Mind and Invitation To The Blues at the weekend.

MP3: Tom Waits - Invitation To The Blues

I can guarantee that we'll hear Lucinda and Ain't Goin' Down To The Well from his last album Orphans; he's started every show with this pair.

MP3: Tom Waits - Lucinda

MP3: Tom Waits - Ain't Goin' Down To The Well

The Waits publicity machine, which started with Tom's infamous press conference announcing the Glitter & Doom tour has continued in a typically oddball manner, whetting the appetite of fans who've waited years to see their hero.

In late May, a few weeks before the tour kicked off in Phoenix, his label Anti- published an hilarious press release in which Tom interviews himself, answering such questions as "What are some unusual things that have been left behind in a cloakroom?" and "What remarkable things have you found in unexpected places?"

The best stunt he's pulled was in Texas. During his El Paso concert a uniformed police officer interrupted the set. "I paid all those tickets" quipped Tom, "She was dead when I got there." City councilwoman Susie Boyd then came onto the stage and handed Waits a plaque, which held a key to the city.

Tom Waits has done no traditional press for this tour, but he did contribute a short piece to Tulsa World prior to his show in Oklahoma's second city, reminiscing about the good times he had there filming Rumble Fish and sharing tips on great lunch stops.

"Bob Dylan told me that the best steak sandwich in the country is in Tulsa. I don't remember if the Branding Iron was the name of the restaurant or the sandwich, either way, Bob knows his cafes and my first stop will be the Branding Iron."

Brilliant stuff. My excitement was further fueled today when my friend Dave Mynard, with whom I'm making the trip, emailed me this mouth-watering link: Top 10 Paris Bistros On A Budget. Je suis très excited!

Related Posts

Carnival Saloon: Tom Waits - all of my obsessive ramblings

Related Links

Glitter & Doom Press Conference - unusual to say the least

Tom Waits' True Confessions - Tom talks to himself

Tulsa World - Tom Waits' Tulsa

The Eyeball Kid: Glitter & Doom - everything you want to know about the tour

Monday, 14 July 2008

Tom Waits Covers #3: Tori Amos & Heidi Talbot

This is my 50th post since I started writing Carnival Saloon last September. My previous attempt at blogging yielded just three posts before I ran out of steam so I feel justified in raising a virtual bat in recognition of my half century. To any of you now offering polite applause, thank you. Thanks also to anyone who's left a comment or said something nice to me about anything I've written here.

It seems appropriate to mark the occasion with the Tom Waits song that I took the blog's name from - Time.

Well, the smart money's on Harlow
And the moon is in the street
The shadow boys are breaking all the laws
And you're east of East St Louis
And the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds like a round of applause
Napoleon is weeping in the Carnival saloon
His invisible fiance is in the mirror
The band is going home
It's raining hammers, it's raining nails
Yes, it's true, there's nothing left for him down here

MP3: Tom Waits - Time

Until recently the only other version of this I knew was by Tori Amos. It's a sombre reading from Strange Little Girls, her peculiar album of covers by male artists.

MP3: Tori Amos - Time

A few weeks ago I heard a new rendition by Irish folk singer Heidi Talbot on The Waiting Room's brilliant three-hour podcast of Tom Waits covers.

MP3: Heidi Talbot - Time

I'd never heard of Talbot before, and now only know what I've gleaned from her official site and MySpace. Her associations with John McCusker, Kris Drever and Boo Hewerdine suggest she's well-regarded by the folk fraternity and the New York Times reckon she "sings with a voice that's both awestruck and tender".

I prefer this version to the Tori Amos one. Listen when Talbot sings, "And things are pretty lousy for a calendar girl". It may not have you weeping into your Guinness but her Irish lilt does suit the song's melancholy.

As usual, please play compare and contrast yourself and leave a comment below.

Related Posts

Tom Waits Covers #1: Solomon Burke - Diamond In Your Mind

Tom Waits Covers #2: Bruce Springsteen - Jersey Girl

Related Links


Tori Amos - Strange Little Girls

Heidi Talbot - In Love & Light

Tom Waits - Rain Dogs

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Solomon Burke's Royal Variety Show

Barbican, London, Thursday 3 July

That Solomon Burke played a Tom Waits song and Credence's Proud Mary in his Barbican set last Thursday would have easily been enough to satisfy me but being in the court of the King of Rock and Soul for nearly two hours was a joyous experience throughout.

The 68-year-old legend is now so large that he had to be wheeled on stage before settling into his throne. The first time I saw Burke in 2002, again at the Barbican, I told friends afterwards that he reminded me of Jabba the Hutt; not because of anything grotesque but that for such a large, immovable mass, Burke has amazing presence. The gesticulating, gesturing and gyrating of his upper torso more than compensate for the fact that there's nothing going on below his waist. Well, not 'nothing', after all, this is a man with 21 children and 89 grandchildren.

Dressed in an enormous silver suit and with a ten-piece band that included horn section, a blind organist and his youngest daughter and one of his granddaughters as backing singers behind him, Burke mercifully dispatched the title track of his new album, Eric Clapton's Like A Fire, early on before moving on to songs from his recent albums and a clutch of R&B and rock'n'roll standards.

The Guardian's two-star review dismissed Burke's tribute to fallen soul legends and his distribution of dozens of red roses to ladies in the audience as "cheesy". Contrived as it may sound it was pure entertainment. What the Guardian's reviewer also failed to mention is just how wonderful Burke's voice still sounds. His show may look ridiculous to some but he still deserves to wear the crown. As Tom Waits has said, "Solomon Burke is one of the architects of American music" and he continues to prove it.

If you know little about him, some background reading is recommended. His is one of showbusinesses' most colourful lives. The Independent's recent interview gives you a taster but I'd also suggest Peter Guralnick's book Sweet Soul Music. I'd not really heard of Solomon Burke until I saw Guralnick do a Q&A about this book. It was his enthusiasm for Burke that led me to the King.

MP3: Solomon Burke - Everybody Needs Somebody To Love

MP3: Solomon Burke - Honey Where's The Money Gone?

Related Posts

Tom Waits Covers #1: Solomon Burke - Diamond In Your Mind

Related Links
Solomon Burke: Last of The Great Soul Men - interview in the Independent

Solomon Burke, Slight Return - No Depression wish Buddy Miller had produced Burke's new album


The Very Best of Solomon Burke - excellent Rhino compilation

Don't Give Up On Me - brilliant comeback album

Friday, 4 July 2008

Tom Waits Covers #2: Bruce Springsteen

Happy Fourth of July!

I was struggling to think how to mark Independence Day here. Then I read Aquarium Drunkard's brilliant Bruce Springsteen celebration and cast my mind back eight years...

My first 4 July in the United States was spent in the beautiful city of Savannah, Georgia with my friend John Barner. For personal, Faulknerian reasons involving a handgun and his mother, John is not a huge fan of Independence Day festivities (he'll no doubt clarify things in the comments below). Inevitably we spent most of the afternoon in the waterfront boozers rather than look for firework displays or funnel cakes. In one bar we decided to order a big plate of oysters but were told that the in-house shucker had taken the holiday off so there was no one available to open the shells. “No fear,” said John, “We’ll crack ‘em ourselves”. After a brief back and forth about health and safety legislation we were given a screwdriver and a thick towel and tucked in.

This bar had a great juke box that was heavy on Johnny Cash. It also contained Bruce Springsteen's epic album, Live 1975-85, home to the Boss’s cover of Tom Waits’ Jersey Girl. This was long before my Springsteen conversion but curious to hear another version of a Waits classic I got out my quarters.

MP3: Bruce Springsteen - Jersey Girl (Live)

MP3: Tom Waits - Jersey Girl

My previous exposure to Tom Waits covers was the loathsome Rod Stewart's horrendous sabotage of Downtown Train. On first listening, over the bar's speakers, I didn't think Bruce's version was much better. Too polished, too safe (he changes the lyric "whores" to "girls") and too predictable. I wondered if he sang it just for the inevitable crowd reaction to any mention of Jersey.

Thinking about this post earlier today I put "Jersey Girl" into Hype Machine to see if any other covers were floating about. Instead of finding rubbish versions by people I'd never heard of I stumbled across this blog and found the equivalent of a rare artifact I never knew existed - Tom and Bruce performing the song together at a Los Angeles basketball arena in 1981!

MP3: Waits/Springsteen - Jersey Girl (Live, 1981)

For me, of course, what makes this version so much better is Tom's vocal. As Heart On A Stick, the original blogger said, "What's remarkable about the performance (beyond the fact that it actually happened; you don't see ol' Tom playing a lot of basketball arenas) is just how dominant Waits' vocals are. That voice is lived-in, not run-down. It's thick, and expressive." Really what makes this such a special find though is the first point - that Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen once shared a stage in an LA sports venue. If I saw the two of them in the same place today I'd probably explode with excitement.

I'm not sure that this discovery has really changed my opinion of Springsteen's original cover. Sure, I've become a Boss devotee since first hearing the song in that bar in Savannah, but no one will perform Jersey Girl as well as the man who wrote it for his wife.

MP3: Tom Waits - Jersey Girl (Live, VH1 Storytellers, 1999)

As usual, if you want to play compare and contrast, please leave a comment below.

Related Posts

Tom Waits Covers #1: Solomon Burke - Diamond In Your Mind

A Musical Conversion - learning to love The Boss
Carnival Saloon: Tom Waits - all my Waits-related posts

Related Links

The Waitsing Room 2: Cruel Variations - Superb three-hour podcast of Waits covers


Buy Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - Live 1975-85

Buy Tom Waits - Heartattack and Vine

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Werner Herzog's Ecstasy of Truth

Alan Yentob looked a little nervous at the start of this week's Imagine as he approached the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles to interview Werner Herzog. I'm not sure if his unease was due to Herzog's reputation for extreme behaviour, that the director was shot at the last time the BBC interviewed him or whether none of the folks milling outside the museum looked like they shared Alan's taste for Armani suits. Nevertheless, despite an early hiccup where Herzog corrected Yentob for referring to him as German rather than Bavarian, the pair seemed to get on.

Herzog is one of my all-time heroes and watching the programme reminded me of the most thrilling moment of my BBC career so far - interviewing the great man for the Storyville website five years ago. Unlike Alan I wasn't lucky enough to get a face-to-face meeting, instead we had a lengthy conversation over the phone, me in London, Herzog in a Milan hotel (he was directing an opera at La Scala). We started with a straight-up interview about his current film Wheel of Time, a typically image-rich documentary about the Buddhist Kalachakra initiation. This was followed by me putting questions to Herzog that had been emailed in from our audience on as diverse topics as the rats in Noserfatu (none hurt; Herzog later sold them to a lab for a profit) and his memorable advice to young filmmakers ("work as a bouncer in a sex club").

Anyone who's watched a Werner Herzog documentary or listened to a DVD commentary will be familiar with his distinctive Anglo-Bavarian voice and hearing it on the end of a phone for nearly an hour was an absolute joy.

One of the most interesting things Herzog talked about was his notion of the "ecstasy of truth" - in his own words:

I've always made it very clear that for the sake of a deeper truth, a stratum of very deep truth in movies, you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative. Otherwise you will end up with what cinema-vérité does - they are the accountants of truth. I'm after something deeper. I call it the "ecstatic truth" - the "ecstasy of truth".

In brief, that to make a truthful non-fiction film you have to make stuff up. This was mentioned in Imagine in reference to Little Dieter Needs To Fly, Herzog's brilliant documentary about Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler. I was particularly struck by something Herzog's editor Joe Bini said - that Rescue Dawn, Herzog's recent dramatisation of Little Dieter, is actually a more 'realistic' film than it's 'non-fiction' predecessor. This Slate article talks in more depth about 'truth' and the two films.

The documentary police no doubt hate Werner's approach (and after Queengate I was worried that the BBC may never be allowed to fund another of his films). One of my favourite scenes in Grizzy Man, Herzog's documentary about unfortunate bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, features the coroner who performed Treadwell's autopsy. The doctor is so deadpan that I immediately assumed it was another scripted concoction. Did it ruin my enjoyment of the film? Did I think Herzog was lying to me? Not one bit. Werner Herzog is not interested in actuality. He is interested in unpicking a deeper, more universal, innate truth about people and events. His quest for the "ecstasy of truth" is what makes even his lesser films a rewarding experience.

If you missed Imagine on Tuesday it's still available on iPlayer and BBC Four is repeating it on Saturday 12 July along with Herzog's Klaus Kinski classics Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. On Friday 4 July you can also see Wheel of Time.

For the record, my favourite Herzog film is Stroszek. What's yours?

Related Links

Herzog on Wheel of Time - my interview with Werner

Werner Herzog Q&A - asking the questions, Nigel Smith

Imagine: Werner Herzog - broadcast info and watch again when available

Werner Herzog - official site worth delving into

Museum of Jurassic Technology - Joanne says it's brilliant

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