Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I'll be on the road to parts north to see friends and relatives and enjoy America's fine motel decor. Meanwhile, enjoy this pic of the Delaware River.

Photo credit: Mom

Monday, July 21, 2008

Waits at The Owl and the Bear

Tristan over at The Owl and the Bear has kindly reposted my Waits review. You'll also find a cool concert recording of Red Red Meat at The Hideout in Chicago (flac files).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tom Waits, Jacksonville, July 1

"I'm like a fucking race horse."

--Tom Waits, Jacksonville, July 1, 2008

Tom Waits' tours are fairly infrequent, so when I heard he was headed to Jacksonville two hours away from my house, I splurged. Jacksonville? Why Jacksonville? It's not really the red dirt, bluesy part of the south Waits wanted to see. Jacksonville is South Beach's conservative opposite, militarized vanilla beach Florida, which tolerates the small, local counterculture because it's essentially irrelevant. Jacksonville is by some definitions lovely, but it's not, well, cool. When, early in the concert, Waits mused about why he'd never been to this attractive city beside a sparkling river and the Atlantic Ocean, he said his friends had always told him, "You're not old enough." I don't know whether he's finally old enough now or if the prospect of hauling the tour bus and three semis ten hours south and back north was too much for his pocketbook or his carbon footprint, but he arrived with a copious supply of merchandise--including vinyls, a chapbook in which he interviews himself, and t-shirts with pictures of oil stains he thought were cool--as well as a sweet stage set that could evoke alley-cat twilight austerity, late-night honkytonk, or red-devil cartoon hell.

Tom Waits in his undersized bowler gangled out to the round center platform as though he were under the influence of some hobo marionette and lit into "Lucinda"/"Ain't Going Down to the Well No More" and quickly into "Down in the Hole" to an adoring audience of sophisticates of all ages (along with a few bellowing idiots). We were clearly in for a hell of a ride. During "Chocolate Jesus" (I believe), he stopped mid-song to admonish the audience, albeit congenially, for clapping out of time. They hadn't encouraged audience clapping, so I think he was a bit pissed, though he turned the awkwardness into a humorous moment. He's serious about his oeuvre, and this audience "interference," enthusiastic as it is, can ruin a song. (This may have been the reason "Clap Hands," one of my favorites from Raindogs, didn't make the cut for any of the shows. The Eyeball Kid has set lists for every show plus a compilation for all the shows, including Jacksonville [I swear I heard "Jockey Full of Bourbon" though, which isn't listed for J'ville], so I won't belabor the entire list.) There wasn't a sour note, from the stage at least, and the band was incredibly tight and the timing and interplay were perfect. It was one of the most polished shows I've ever seen, musical "theatre" of the best sort, as if Broadway had bled somehow into the old Bowery.

The show both peaked and nadired for me in the middle of an arresting extended performance of "Rain Dogs"/"Russian Dance." Waits' performance was violent. The moment seemed Brechtian, confrontational, perfect, eviscerating what can come off sometimes, if one isn't listening closely enough to Waits' superb writing, as a kind of sentimental nostalgia for hard times. His gyrating, barking performance annihilated any possible sentimentality. But as I looked around, I sensed no one seemed to be getting this. Most were too busy being fans to feel his indictment of all of us, our asses sitting in the hundred dollar seats of this lovely theater on the river, six dollar beers bubbling away in comfortable, pudgy guts. No recession here, mind you, but "Rain Dogs" should have awakened everyone to what people go to shows to forget, all this American consumptive excess that leaves so many out in the cold, hungry and bemused and sodden, while so many inside listened to songs about those people, then got in their SUV's and drove away, pop-culturally sated. Perhaps I'm projecting my own guilt, my own excess here, sitting there with all my Waits stuff, taking it too seriously, but it unnerved me.

The epigraph above came from a moment that added to this feeling. Someone screamed out that he wanted Waits' sperm to make a baby. Tom stopped, and said, "Wait a minute. We just might be able to arrange that. You'll have to talk to my manager. But I must warn you, I'm very expensive. I'm like a fucking racehorse." Then he laughed like a carny knowing you're going to piss your jeans on this ride. This and some comments he made about show business--noting at one point that Sarah Bernhardt's amputated leg on display at a circus was earning more than the actress herself, who was performing "across the street"--suggested his contempt for this consumerist attitude, this objectification of people, and his understanding of the irony of his own position as he enriches himself and his family singing, even iconically, songs about the downtrodden I believe he truly cares about, knows. I think he wanted this contempt to come through, not vitriolically (I think of Jello Biafra cursing the mosh pit "jocks" in Fresno, 1985), but through the power of the music and the words. Waits was polite and played along, a trickster minstrel, hoping maybe someone will get it all after the beer and white wine wear off. I hope so, too.

As if to emphasize this theme, he stepped away from center stage to sit at the piano, stage right, while all the musicians but Seth Ford-Young on bass left the stage. While idiots yelled for their favorites, he ignored them, and settled into "On the Nickle" to continue a theme, slowly and beautifully. Counterpoint. Do you get it now? It was truly a high point in an extraordinary show. The piano solo moved through "I Can't Wait to Get Off Work" and "Invitation to the Blues" and "Lost in the Harbour" wonderfully, creating the emotional heart of the show.

Continuing his theme of exile, the band returned, and a single, flickering bulb descended to "accompany" him on the poem "Circus." Then, like a fireworks show, a grand finale in which he crowed and stomped and sagged elastically through "Hoist that rag," "Lie to Me," "Anywhere I Lay My Head," "Singapore," "Cold, Cold Ground," and "Make it Rain." They left the stage and the audience wanting more.

After much applause, they came out to finish, slightly anticlimactically after all the heavy pyrotechnics, with "House where Nobody Lives," and then they left. And then I got in my car and listened to Frank's Wild Years all the way home, because he didn't play my favorite from that album, and I am, after all, innocent when I dream, and I needed to hear that after all the indulgence in my extravagant solitude.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Perigrinations north with music (Ninja Gun) and both scheduled and chance meetings: Pt. 2, Atlanta

After checking into the Highland Inn, (the best place to stay in Atlanta in my humble opinion, even with its funky percussive radiator heating--hey, Joan Baez slept there), I walked around Little Five Points, browsed The Junkyard's Daughter, flipped through the bins at Criminal Records (find of the day, a good, used Wombats A Guide to Love, Loss, and Desperation--an upbeat, silly antidote to my serious, sad bastard tendencies, though "Let's Dance to Joy Division" conflates it all nicely), and wandered among the few tattooed and pierced hipsters brave enough to face the heat and daylight and yuppie moms power-strolling toward the park. It was a good way to kill time until I was to meet up with Tara, a former student and fine singer who's soon off to China to teach, and her old Valdosta friend Leigh Ann for dinner before the Ninja Gun show at The Earl. We supped at Zaya nearby where the girls could load up on dollar Ketel One drinks before the show and the food was generally very good Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fare, especially the hummus.

We headed to the show at the Earl and met up with many other former and current Valdosta folks, including Dixie and Camille and Kenny and Jason and Damon (my hero for booking The Reputation at Vito's here) and John and Maybeth and Jessie (Coody's sweet gal), ready to enjoy our local heroes Ninja Gun at a serious venue (hey, Califone played there). It's Elephant opened enthusiastically enough, but didn't capture my interest as the lead singer tried too hard to modulate between Eddie Vedder and Robert Plant.

Ninja Gun
started the strongest set I'd heard from them, assisted by a superior sound system that let them showcase their country punk songs with lucid vocals yet still as loud as they wanna be. They opened with their new, sweet Rainbow Song ("Hey, man, do you wanna see a rainbow?") that Coody co-penned with his niece, then pumped things up with "Restless Rubes," the title song that revises Robert Frost, just a bit:

A hometown can burn you to the ground
So turn a tire around until you’re fine.
In a yellow wood
Two roads converged and the way he should
Go was clear
He left them bridges burning

They powered through a strong set from the new cd, including "Darwin was a Baptist" with its deft humor and fine, ironic chorus, "Can I get a little church in my state?/ Give me one more reason to hate everything around me," anchoring a biting critique of life that "surrounds" anyone in the bible belt. "Eight Miles Out" rocked with its upbeat take on doubt, and maybe my favorite on the album, "Permanent Press," with it's ringing guitar progression and its poignant hint of William Carlos Williams' "Between Walls" in the light-through-glass imagery for this ars musica:

So write yourself in melody and make the words agree
Lay it out for all to see just who you used to be.
‘Cause oh the seasons, do they pass
Like naked sunshine through broken glass
The days will slide on by too fast if you don’t try.

"The Last Cowboy" and "Asking Price," an anthem against selling out, also shone before the enthusiastic crowd at The Earl. They closed with their raucous country punk version of "Please, Please Me," which Coody asserts is the first true punk rock song. Ninja Gun makes a convincing case, and all of us from down here in little ole Valdosta were swelling with pride.

Missy Gossip and the Secret Keepers closed out the night and surprised with Lauren Staley's strong vocals hinting at what Linda Ronstadt dipped in Georgia peach might sound like. They played a good, crunching southern rock set punctuated by a fine torch song or two.

It was a fine evening to share with friends, and I headed back to the Highland, a good bottle of red waiting to help my evening reflections.