Tom Waits, Playhouse, Edinburgh
Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, Pure Groove Records, London
His grotesque dancing may be stomach-churning, but Tom Waits attacks the blues like an avant-garde radical
Sunday 03 August 2008
When I was 14, and a pupil in a typical British comprehensive school, if someone kicked a football to you and you missed it, you knew what was coming next. The entire playground would put their tongues inside their lower lips, point at you and, in an exaggerated "spastic" voice, shout "Urgh, Joey!!!" in unison. This was, of course, a reference to Joey Deacon, the elderly cerebral palsy sufferer made famous by Blue Peter in a well-intentioned but disastrous attempt to spread among young people a greater understanding of disability. It wasn't big, and it wasn't clever.
It's a total shock, then, to find Tom Waits of all people conducting an entire concert in what appears to be a juvenile Joey Deacon impression. You accept, before you walk through the doors, that Waits has a, shall we say, distinctive singing style: a larynx with more gravel than a council gritting truck. You're not expecting Gareth Gates. But neither are you expecting to find him jerking his limbs spasmodically in a grotesque schoolboy parody of a cripple, and grunting and bellowing in a strained voice which makes his – almost always brilliant – lyrics about perdition and degradation all but indecipherable. Ian Curtis was a genuine epilepsy sufferer, and Ian Dury a bona fide polio victim. Unless there's a detail of his medical history which has eluded me, Tom Waits has no such excuse. It surely has to be some sort of stupid and insulting joke – a suspicion that is reinforced when he switches into an even dafter Donald Duck voice – and it means that for much of the night, the worst thing about a Tom Waits concert is Tom Waits.
And the best. If you can suppress your irritation for long enough, there's plenty to enjoy. In a bowler hat and waistcoat that make him look like Benny from Top Cat, he's a supremely physical performer, as anyone who's seen his somewhat hammy acting turns in Dracula (the insect-eating Renfield) or Down By Law (marching around chanting the ice cream song) will already know. And when he quits with the silly spasms, he's a compelling sight: his electrically twitching leg stamping up dust clouds of flour, "soaking" himself in tinsel showers for "Make It Rain" (this is the Glitter and Doom tour), and conducting the audience as if it's an auxiliary musical instrument, soliciting rhythmic handclaps and helpful wooos on cue.
Tom Waits was born the day after Leadbelly died. We're meant to think "Oooh, reincarnation!", and a big part of the Waits myth is based on the notion that he somehow grew from the deep, rich soil of the early 20th century, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? chain-gang lands. It's a fiction, half the story at best. While Waits may channel the spirit of the ancient bluesmen, he's also an unrecognised modernist. Much of his daunting oeuvre is as brutally avant-garde as anything by, say, Tricky or Peaches.
His touring band, including his son Casey on drums and a saxophonist called Vincent Henry whose party trick is to play two saxes at once, are quite brilliant. Their set-up is essentially that of Scat Cat and his band from The Aristocats, and they completely nail the stealthy trad jazz and louche looseness required by Waits's music. The anti-imperialist bossa nova of "Hoist That Rag" is a highlight.
It's a set that takes in a scattering of his more celebrated songs – many of them made famous by other singers, eg "Tom Traubert's Blues" (Rod Stewart) and "Falling Down" (Scarlett Johansson), or by use in popular culture, eg "Way Down in the Hole" (The Wire) – but visits the more obscure corners of his catalogue at greater length, his most recent album, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, being a collection of rarities and unreleased material.
Before the penultimate track, "9th & Hennepin" from 1985's Rain Dogs, Waits – almost mute so far – suddenly switches to storyteller mode. "Ninth & Hennepin was a bad neighbourhood that became good. When I tell people about 9th & Hennepin in the old days, people look at me like I'm doing card tricks for a dog. 'Yeah, my wife bought some sandals there,' they'll say. In my day you'd be killed for sandals there!" More of this, and less of the spazz-dancing, and he'd have wiped the floor.
Later this year, rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats will play their last ever gigs. The timing for Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, a teenage trio of rockabilly upstarts from north London, couldn't be more auspicious. Have they got what it takes to pick up the baton?
The Durham siblings, aged 15 to 19 and with cutesy names only just on the right side of the Geldofs, certainly look the part: two girls with Pink Ladies pony tails and one boy who looks like Nick Kamen.
A love of 1950s music has been instilled in them by parents Graeme Durham (who works in a recording studio) and Ingrid Weiss (who used to drum with post-punk legends the Raincoats), and you just know they spent many a long car journey listening to the Sun Records boxset. Well, it keeps them off the streets and stops them stabbing their friends.
Mum and dad lurk in the background – literally. Ingrid plays an upright bass, Graeme rhythm guitar. The whole project is reminiscent of olden-times family bands such as the Carter Family, and the trio's unvarnished, vintage sound, and their repertoire (consisting almost entirely of covers of songs associated with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, Charlie Rich and Muddy Waters) dates from a similar era. It's only the interruption of Lewis receiving a mobile phone call that jolts you back into the 21st century. Wouldn't have happened in Eddie Cochran's day.
They've certainly got a prodigious level of ability and versatility. When Kitty, the nominal frontwoman, isn't singing, she'll switch to harmonica and banjo. When Lewis isn't twanging on a 1958 Gretsch, he plays boogie woogie piano and sings. When Daisy isn't drumming, she'll pick up an accordion. And the three of them sing a mean a capella.
It's all somewhat polite, and there's a feeling of intruding on a Christmas gathering. The novelty factor also plays a part. A couple of years older and Kitty, Daisy & Lewis would be confined to the retro rock'n'roll circuit, however talented they are.
They've got the skills. They've got the songbook (of course). All they're lacking is the wildcat scream that true rockabilly requires. The sagest advice the teen trio could be given right now would be this: we know you can re-create. Now let's see you rock.
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