Tom Waits For No Man.
Directed by Ali McGregor. Musical direction by Charly Zastrau. Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide Cabaret Festival. The Adelaide Festival Centre. June 17 2018.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
Tom Waits may not be everyone’s man. The growl is legendary. The poor and bedraggled, the seedy and the down and out inhabit his world. There may be bats in the belfry and brawlers in the bar but in Waits’ world we are innocent when we dream. Tom Waits For No Man is the Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s tribute to the music and songs of a musician, composer, actor and avant-garde icon to the melancholic, the philosophic and the maverick. Hosted by Mikelangelo and directed by Ali McGregor, Tom Waits For No Man features a number of artists to reinterpret the songs, embodying the soul and spirit of a legend but endowing his unique gift with an universal truth.
|Mikelangelo. Photo by Claudio Rascella
That is why I found it difficult to grasp this tribute’s true intent, and I suspect that was partly due to the limited rehearsal time. Individually Waits was done proud by the outstanding artists, cabaret luminaries in their own right, but, although there was an attempt to capture the atmosphere of Waits’ music in the set with its assorted backdrop of instruments and objects on a wire frame and a video screen to project footage of Waits acting roles, the singers presented as their individual cabaret personas .It took a leap of faith to see past Mikelangelo’s Balkan Elvis to his forceful opening rendition of You’re Innocent When You Dream or Butt Kapinski’s film noir detective sneaking through the audience to Tom Waits’ What the Hell Is He Building There? His running gag is the dark mystery of the sad clown.
|Butt Kapinski. Photo by Claudio Raschella
Now don’t get me wrong. These are excellent interpreters of their genre, and maybe they are reinterpreting Waits in their own image. His influence assumes cult status and these performers are his devoted acolytes. But I am momentarily unnerved by a presence that is not Waits but themselves. Perhaps that’s the point, or is it merely a convenient condition of limited rehearsal time together? After all it was only the night before that Mikelangelo met the enigmatic Joey Arias. I would rather believe that Tom Waits and Ali McGregor’s tribute do not seek to change who a person is but rather empower them to become the person they want to be. Audiences are left to make of Waits what they may
|Queenie van de Zandt. Photo: Claudio Raschella
No such confusion existed with the band. In the shadows, except for exceptional musical director, Charly Zastrau on piano, the musicians imbued the performance with the sombre mood of whisky soaked bars and the lonely atmosphere of darkly lit streets.
All outward confusion aside, McGregor’s artists find the poet’s voice. Queenie van de Zandt’s Chocolate Jesus rings with religious irony. McGregor’s Ice Cream Man edges dangerously on the double entendre, where innocence falls prey to darker intent. The pain and anger of Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis is given Carla Lippis’s manic force in her volcanic rendition. Joey Arias, compelling in his presence, sings the strained agony of the lonely heart in This One’s From The Heart.
|Joey Arias. Photo: Claudio Raschella
All reservations fade in the emotive power of the tribute. Waits’ lyrics echo with the voices of the disenchanted and opponents to jingoistic peril as the full company launches into a stirring, defiant rendition of Kathleen Brennan and Waits’ Hoist That Rag. Escape from Life’s stark reality lulls its way into Midnight Lullaby and the recurring theme of innocence in dreams. When life is too hard and it’s ten below and you’re far from home, you’ve got to Hold On sings Mikelangelo, a closing note of survival in a programme that pays tribute to Tom Waits’ unique and influential view of a world. McGregor’s amazing company of artists rejoice in their labour of love. Their interpretation of Waits’ gift to the music world is their own, seen through the prism of Waits’ profound lyrics. The audience, devotees or novices, fortunate enough to see this one night stand, left Tom Waits For No Man richer for the experience.