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The Music of Tom Waits @ The Coffee House

May 7, 2016

May. 9, 2016
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Tom Waits

If folk music can be defined as the expression of a downtrodden people, then Tom Waits’ peculiar self-invention as an articulate hobo lounge lizard exploring aspects of the human experience otherwise little touched upon in popular music qualifies him as a folkie. So might the way Waits has permeated culture without ever having a distinct breakout moment. Many people may know his voice and style without being able to recognize his name.

All that qualifies Waits as apt a figure as any to be the final artist given tribute at the last of The Coffee House’s monthly food pantry benefits of its current September-May season. The nearly 50-year-old acoustic music venue inside Redeemer Lutheran Church at North 19th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue invites an almost familial crowd that knows each other from week to week and month to month. But were anyone in attendance to have expected any of the three acts present to come close to Waits’ inimitably gravelly baritone, they may have come away disappointed.

Still, the personalized interpretations of Waits’ work given by the three acts on the evening’s bill were more than satisfying. The single most resonant moment, literally, may have come when John Stano’s vocal hum at the end of a chorus in “Train Song” perfectly harmonized with the Button Box accordion he played. Though he admitted the instrument was out of his comfort zone, Stano’s choice was a memorial to his recently deceased Uncle Tony, squeeze box lover that he was. Otherwise, wooden guitar and steel Dobro accompanied him on numbers from throughout a wide swath of Waits’ prolific catalog. While 1999’s Mule Variations provided the closing, slyly blasphemous “Come On Up To The House,” Waits’ “Grapefruit Moon” comes from 1973 debut, Closing Time.

The same first album containing that mournful ode also features one of the more rousing highlights of the set by wonderfully named David Kaye and the Electric Mustache. It was Kaye’s stand-up bassist and co-singer Jeremy Rogerson who abetted the already extant bawdiness to “Ice Cream Man.” Opening with “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” bandleader Kaye came closest to matching Waits’ grizzled singing style without overstepping into parody.

If Kaye came closest to evoking Waits’ voice, Tom Plutshack arguably best approximated at least some of the man’s diverse sonic breadth. While Plutshack strummed and plucked guitar, Dave Bolyard, his fellow member of ska and reggae outfit The Tritonics, played snare drum with brushes and a trumpet that was often muted, also occasionally offering duet vocals. The ambience created a minimalist rendition of the crossroads of Tin Pan Alley and the most booze-sodden block of the Bowery so often summoned by the creator of the pair’s source material. Fun stuff, to which Plutshack gave a bit of insight by comparing Waits to Prince. In a similar way to how no one could perform the punk funk legend’s material like its originator, the same holds true for the way Waits has with his own unique musical vision. 

Sadly, one singer scheduled for the bill, Phil Gatewood, couldn’t make the show due to a bout of laryngitis. Considering the rough tones often emanating from Waits’ own larynx, that setback may have been at least a bit ironic as well. Regardless, by the end of the night, the big wooden barrel near The Coffee House’s entrance was nearly filled with canned goods for Central City Church’s food pantry. Though Stano pointed out that it’s a shame such a thing is still necessary nowadays, it still provided a good reason for fine local talent to salute an indisputably singular musician.

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