With Tom Waits touring so infrequently, opportunities to hear his songs live are few and far between. However, Stewart D'Arrietta has been satisfying that need for the past few years with a tribute concert/theater piece, originally called Belly of a Drunken Piano, but in its most recent incarnation it's Tom Waits For No Man. With something like this there's much to be apprehensive about. Cover bands are one of the worst experiences in music, especially when they pretend to actually be the people. Kiss even has one with midgets and one with children. Dreadful. So love Tom Waits though I do, the prospect of a Waits cover band was alarming.
I needn't have worried, however, as Stewart is not a cover artist in the standard sense of the word. Rather, he uses his performances of Waits songs to structure a piece as much theater as concert. Running at London's Riverside Studios through October 28th, I saw it the night of Friday the 19th. The room was tiny, an all-black sound studio bathed in low blue light with a hundred or so bleacher-style seats. On stage was a birdcage piano (vertical with strings parallel to the keyboard) with the front pried off, revealing the inside, and an upright bass. At 9:15 Stewart and the bass player walk quickly out with no introduction and take their positions. Stewart has a porkpie hat, ruffle shirt and jacket, with the bass player rocking a Slash-esq top hat.
The lights go down even more as they begin a very surprising opening number, the spoken-word What's He Building. D'Arrietta was lit only by a handheld flashlight sitting on the piano that he would occasionally wave about as he jerked about going through the bizarre tale of the creepy next door neighbor. Very Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so quite appropriate with Halloween coming up. The bass player plucked his bass, strummed his bass, bowed his bass and punched his bass as he rustled chains around throughout. D'Arrietta only hit the occasional dissonant piano chord, leaving a far more stripped-down approach that had the exact same feel of terror as the original.
Before the applause died down the bass started a fast riff that led into a rasped "He got himself a homemade spacial"...Walking Spanish. With such a limited musical arrangement, the song was staccato and quick, with each hit of the piano counting. Halfway through he shoved his chair back, Jerry Lee Lewis-style, and stood for the rest of the song, staying that way into Red Shoes at the Drugstore. A surprising choice for sure, cementing my prediction that this was not going to be a Waits greatest hits setlist. Without a clear piano line, it became almost a spoken-word piece, backed mainly by the double bass. D'Arrietta's voice is very similar to Tom's, without sounding like an imitation. It creates the same mood without sounding like a two-bit knock-off.
An actual spoken word piece followed as D'Arrietta took on the persona of small-time huckster to roam the stage inviting the audience to Step Right Up. Tom's version never did much to me, and I now discovered why: it's a visual piece, has to be seen. As such, it was a highlight of the night as Stewart roamed the stage and aisles raving about the amazing product that mows your lawn, picks the kids up from school, gets rid of age spots, and makes excuses for unwanted lipstick on your collar. Lots of laughs from the audience, probably unfamiliar with the original. A drop in energy signaled the transition into Frank's Wild Years, the last spoken piece of the night about a happy family man who on a whim lights his house on fire.
D'Arrietta finally takes a break from the performance, sitting back at the piano and chatting about both Tom's childhood and his own. As a kid Stewart had a friend name Doug, who has a tough time ("for goodness sakes, his name was in the past tense") in a wheelchair. Waits' song Kentucky Avenue, about the pranks and misguided dreams of children spoke to him in the line about the boy who plans to "steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs." The original version of the song had passed me by, but I can't imagine why as it is gorgeous. The emotion dripped through in Stewart's performance of it as the bass player stood by listening.
A story about Tom seeing a man have a heart attack led into, predictably, Heart Attack & Vine. D'Arrietta's version was frantic enough, but nothing (including the original) can approach Screamin' Jay Hawkins explosion of a cover. This was one was over almost before it started, leading into Jersey Girl. I like almost every Tom Waits song...except this one, so I was disappointed that out of all Tom's good semi-hits (Ol' 55, Downtown Train), D'Arrietta chose to play this Van Morrison knockoff.
He more than made up for it with next number though, a phenomenal piano take on God's Away On Business. The sound was very different than the Waits version, choppy and frenetic with an energy unmatched. A Scottish heckler was given a tambourine that D'Arrietta would occasionally give him a cue to hit when he paused his staccato pounding. The clear highlight of the show.
A spiel about marriage ("a beautiful institution...for those who want to be in an institution") led into a woman coming out in a ripped, bloodied wedding dress, one high-heel in her hand, doing Crystal Gayle's part in the duet from the One From the Heart soundtrack, Picking Up After You. I didn't know the song, but wasn't blown away by it, except for the fabulous line "How long you been coming your hair with a wrench?" Having a duet was a nice change for the show, and after she stormed off D'Arrietta went into the familiar piano chords to one of my favorite Waits tunes, Invitation to the Blues. So much that makes the song great is Tom's delivery, so no cover could match up, but it was nice to hear regardless.
He kicked the energy into high gear again with a rousing version of Way Down in the Hole, before bringing it back to an early ballad The Piano Has Been Drinking. I'd thought of it as a one-joke number, but listening to his presentation brought out all the other little nuances, with the necktie that's asleep, the carpet that needs a haircut, and the jukebox that has to take a leak. The audience busted out laughing when the finally got to the "not me," surprising me that they didn't know what I'd thought was a staple.
A "minor hit" again with The Heart of Saturday Night, often covered and never really worth it. I learned the interesting fact that apparently some Vietnam vets adopted this as their theme song though. After finishing this, Stewart left the piano again for a bass-driven Romeo Is Bleeding, superbly executed with enough intelligence to let the story tell itself without unnecessary theatrics. The bass kept everything moving along without getting in the way.
The woman came back out again, not in any costume, for This One's From the Heart, a gorgeous ballad delivered straight-up. Her soaring voice complemented Stewart's rasp perfectly, adding beauty to the songs without any over-the-top warbling. She stayed on for Hold On, swaying quietly just as the woman in the song, and once again fit the mood perfectly. They traded verses of this Mule Variations gem before doing another from the same album, Big in Japan. Having a female duet-er would seem like a terrible plan for this hard-driving rocker, but it worked perfectly adding volume and power to the song. The bass player tipped his bass down, playing it like an electric guitar as D'Arrietta slammed the piano, probably breaking it more than it already was. The lady's attempts to invite audience members up to dance went nowhere, but she didn't seem put off as they continued jamming to this one for all it was worth before crashing to a halt, taking a bow and leaving.
D'Arrietta came back solo for the predictable encore Tom Traubert's Blues (the guy is Australian). It was faithfully done, and as such couldn't help but be beautiful. He left with a quick thank-you and surprisingly fervent applause from an audience who I hadn't even realized was that into it. If they had the same fears of the lame tribute concert I did, they too were obviously proved wrong with a moving musical show and theater piece that is tied to the songs without obscuring D'Arrietta's own obvious talent for showmanship and vocal delivery. His London stay is almost over, but wherever the show goes next, make it a destination.
Here are a few songs to further convince you. These are from his New York incarnation of the show, Belly of a Drunken Piano, and so have more instruments (guitar, drums) missing from the London version. Judging from the recordings, the show is much better without them.
God's Away On Business
Tom Traubert's Blues