sun 03/07/2022

Rain Dogs Revisited, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Rain Dogs Revisited, Barbican

Rain Dogs Revisited, Barbican

The women stole the show in an inspired reinvention of Tom Waits’s classic album

The ever-reliable Tiger Lillies were one highlight of a great concertAndrew Adkinson

So how did you survive the 1980s? I don’t mean money-wise; I’m sure you had plenty of that. I mean musically and therefore spiritually. It was a diet of Thomas Mapfumo and old Nina Simone albums that got me through the first half, until the Red Cross parcel of Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs arrived in 1985.

Who knows how many times that treasured piece of vinyl got lowered onto my 30-quid hi-fi in my desperate attempt to ward off the encroaching thunder of Phil Collins’s drum kit and myriad other musical abominations of the period?

Swordfishtrombones was the album that marked Tom Waits’s dramatic move from bar-room blues crooner to Beefheartian sonic anarchist. But it also represented the first awkward steps into a wholly new terrain: a sonic equivalent to Picasso’s unprecedented leap from Blue Period sentimentality to scrunched-up, fragmented Cubism, if you will. But with the foundations laid with Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs hits the ground strutting. There’s not a note, or crash or rumble out of place, and the songs are there, too – all 19 of them – not one firing blanks.

So here I was at the Barbican, for the second night running ruminating on the potential folly of musicians trying to replicate - or even just compete with - a definitive recorded experience. Except this time not one of the original musicians involved in the recording were going to be present. Yes, the musical director, David Coulter, worked with Waits on The Black Rider, and Waits and Brennan gave this project their blessing (“Do what you want with it, good luck and bon voyage!”). But you can only go one way with cover versions of classic songs, and that’s the other way; get as far away as possible from those great looming monoliths, and then play them on the spoons backed by the Berlin Philharmonic or something. Anything but try to replicate or better the original.

Erica_Stucky_by_NICI__JOSTFortunately most of the performances last night did, metaphorically speaking, pick up those spoons and run with them. Although things did get off to a shaky start with Irish singer Camille O'Sullivan, who made the unwise decision of tackling the only song of the evening not off Rain Dogs. Because “Make it Rain” is a particularly… er… monolithic song. It's all about Waits’s thunderous Old Testament voice convincing you that he, in fact, could make it rain. Ms O’Sullivan, on the other hand, would have been lucky to summon even a few drops of drizzle, despite her over-theatrical larkings about on the stage. But fortunately she came up with the goods a couple of tunes later by proving herself on an ethereal “Hand Down Your Head”, on which she took herself more seriously, thus compelling the audience to do likewise.

It was at this point that an unexpected pattern was set for the rest of the two-hour show. For - surprise, surprise - the female performers in every instance honoured and built upon Waits’s songs with more verve and invention than the male ones. The Swiss-American Erika Stucky (pictured right) stalked the aisles of the Barbican, hitting things with a garden spade in an attempt to get a Waitsian clang out of them, before taking to the stage for rivetingly offbeat, off-track, off-world takes of “9th & Hennepin”, “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Union Square”, in which she part acted, part yodelled and part jazz-sang the lyrics, drawing previously unregistered drama and pathos from their twisted midnight narratives. At one point she did a disturbingly accurate impersonation of a crying baby – Mr Waits, I suspect, would have approved.

One-time Polyphonic Spree member St Vincent completely reinvented “Downtown Train”, banishing memories of Rod Stewart’s abominable mush-up. With fragile voice, and just as fragile guitar playing, she sang the whole first verse alone, before the rest of the band gradually insinuated themselves like slowly rising water, so that eventually the anthemic nature of the song was acknowledged but not overstated. It was a very distant cousin of Waits’s version and all the better for it.

tumblr_lidfaynql41qgxjx9o1_400The only exception to this unexpected female victory was the ever-reliable trio Tiger Lillies. But even then you could argue – at a stretch - that Martyn Jacques's powerful cut-glass falsetto lent “Rain Dogs”, “Diamonds and Gold” and “Anywhere I Lay my Head” a faux feminine dimension. But what this was really about was that Jacques – like the the women singers – wasn’t equipped to do a Waits. Whereas when Arthur H and Stef Kamil Carlens tried to summon the gravel and gravitas, they simply exposed their limitations. Also their arrangements tended to be more conservative in the sense they were closer to Waits’s templates.

But talking of arrangements, a huge amount of credit should go to the backing band, which consisted of – amongst others – regular Costello keyboardist Steve Nieve, and Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford and bassist and “synthesiser master” Tom Herbert. Coulter has created a unit here that I imagine Waits himself would be delighted to have behind him. There were plenty of sonic references to the spirit of the album, but also fearless excursions into the unknown which were pleasingly unpredictable. For the encore the song “Rain Dogs” was revisited by the whole ensemble, and a Waits-loving Barbican audience went home nourished and invigorated by a wholly worthwhile reworking of one of the greatest albums of the past half-century.

Watch the opening of Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law (1986) featuring Rain Dogs' "Jockey Full of Bourbon"


Comments

I sort of agree. The backing band were without exception phenomenal, with some incredible arrangements from Coulter, and whisper-tight precision that allowed them at times to riff on the melodies. The singers were a mixed bag - with everyone trying their best. I was coming to every act fresh. I had heard of St. Vincent and Tiger Lillies, but never heard their work. For me, Camille O' Sullivan's Make It Rain was excellent. Thrilling, varied and strong. The theatrics were silly and jarring (the audience did NOT know how to react) but that's cabaret style, I guess. Hang Down Your Head was also beautiful. Now here's the thing - I don't understand the hype behind Tiger Lillies. Many in the audience were cooing with reverence over their chunks, and Coulter was happy to give them the encore. I found their section pretentious in the extreme, and grating. (all) Stripped down Raindogs, the coda for which seemed to last HOURS, was particularly awful. Again, backing band noticeably absent while their fanciful three way arrangement was left to run unchecked, and felt small and empty on that stage. A pity. Everyone else usually had one song that REALLY flew, and others that were attempts, if not fully succesfully, to re-invent the wheel. The arrangement for Time and for Downtown Train in particular were masterpieces. On that note, while Arthur H seemed a great guy, and a Waits fan, by his own admission, he struggled with the lyrics, which are a central part of the experience. Perhaps Tom would love that he butchered them (I suspect he wouldn't care) but I kept wishing Coulter had found someone who could master the storytelling of Time rather than stumble through it like a difficult menu selection. Especially with THAT band behind it. So a mixed bag in places, but never less than "good" for me. And at it's best, transcendental. Last night disproved a belief I've had for 15 years - that you can't cover Tom Waits.

I agree the Tiger Lilies are a matter of taste. On paper they are a good fit for Waits, but I felt they made the songs all Tiger and no Tom - the style swamped the material. As above, it would been more interesting for them to step out of their comfort zone and play with the excellent band. Not a few of the performers brought a theatricality to the occasion, which made me think that the corkscrew wonderland of Waits is already there in the songs, and doesn't need the extra layer of zaniness then seemed to think was required. Thus often the songs played straight had more power - particularly the thrilling Hang Down Your Head, and Downtown Train's exposure as a New York short story. But I must take issue with the review and the comment here for not mentioning one of the best aspects of last night which was the performer at the back who produced the most wonderful and Waitsian array of sounds on his ondes martenot, glass harmonica and crystal machine thing - the ethereal and other worldly soundscape he produced on Hang Your Head was stunning, as were his other haunting contributions for the rest of the night.

Good write up and a lot more diplomatic than my attempt :)

Broadly agree with review. Stucky was the revelation of the evening, certainly the most 'Waitsian' performance. St Vincent was confident and injected a little star quality. If her new album delivers you feel this might be her moment - talking to people before the show it seemed her presence on the bill was what convinced most to come. I thought Arthur H almost sort of worked. Too often in these celebrations of Waits/Dylan/Springsteen etc the performers enunciate every precious syllable. But Waits often slurs and mumbles and buries his lyrics, there are songs I've been listening to 25 years that I don't have a clue what the words are. There was lots of muttering and giggling at AH but they had disappeared by the closing minutes of Time which might have been the highlight of the night. Can't share the love here for Camille however and am a little surprised given the obvious negative reactions in the audience around me and in the bar afterwards. An unremarkable voice, her idea of emotion is either whispering or shouting. The clumsy literal acting of the lyrics is the worst kind of third rate cabaret. And her stage presence was reminiscent of tired drunk performer in a Haven's Holiday Camp karaoke evening. After the first ten minutes I thought it was going to be one of the longest evenings of my life but by the end of the night it just about felt worth missing The Apprentice for.

As I said to two friends beforehand, songs are meant to be sung. Why does Tom Waits sing songs that he has not written? Why did a bunch of people start singing Innocent When You Dream in a Dublin pub 3 years ago? I enjoyed the evening. I thought the band were very good and I enjoyed most of the singers. If I wasn't too keen on one song I knew that another would be along in a few minutes. Downtown Train was the highlight for me and I would like the chance to hear it again. A few of the songs have appeared on YouTube but not that one. Having listened to it again, I also like the Tiger Lillies version of Diamonds & Gold. It whets the appetite for a new Waits which hopefully should appear this year.

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