You could easily make the argument that, of all the top-level singer-songwriters, Tom Waits has the most truly great songs that aren’t well known beyond his hardcore fan base. And he also doesn’t tour much: Of all the living musicians who I’ve never seen perform and would most like to see the most, he’s at or near the top of the list.
All this makes the Waits tribute show, “Clap Hands” — which the Pennsylvania-based Bovine Social Club recently debuted on a tour that started at Roy’s Hall in Blairstown, May 17 — a particularly good idea. And it, indeed, turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening.Given Waits’ theatrical tendencies, it was fitting that the band, led by singer-guitarist Samuel Saint Thomas, added some theatrical flourishes to the music. Between songs, singer-violinist Casey McGinty would pull two pieces of paper from a suitcase and give one of them to Saint Thomas, and keep one for herself. They would then take turns reading what was written on the pieces of paper — a poem by Waits, or something he said in an interview, or something else — and then let them flutter to the floor. I thought the interview quotes were particularly interesting: Waits seems to speak in an enigmatic, poetic way at all times.
Saint Thomas, McGinty and keyboardist Damian Calcagne sang most of the songs. McGinty turned ballads such as “Green Grass” and “Temptation” into torch songs, while Calcagne came closest to duplicating the flavor of Waits’ gravelly growl on songs such as “Take It With Me” and “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards).”
Band members stood in a semi-circle, clapping, on the opening song, “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” Later, on “Way Down in the Hole” became a boozy singalong. Guitarist-vocalist Jesse Bardwell, formerly of the Quimby Mountain Band and now a frequent Steve Forbert collaborator, guested with the band on songs such as “New Coat of Paint” and “House Where Nobody Lives.”
“Well, since it’s New Jersey and all …,” Saint Thomas said before leading the band through the encore, sentimental favorite “Jersey Girl.”
The show had a loose, casual feel: It was part of a short tour, and I assume that every night was very different.
Most “tribute shows” are devoted, of course, to the music of commercial juggernauts such as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and so on. I hope Bovine Social Club continues to do some Waits shows, at least occasionally: It’s important to keep these gems in circulation, too.