Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Covering Tom Waits and Bob Dylan

The music of Tom Waits offers a wide palette for singers, but rarely do instrumentalists cover his songs. Dirt In The Ground (Independent) is the second album of Waits covers by the jazz ensemble known as Innocent When You Dream. The band is led by New York native Aaron Shragge, who plays a dragon mouth trumpet, a modified horn specifically shaped to “expand the trumpet’s melodic capacity,” according to his description. The result is a warmer, more ancient sound to the instrument that complements the worldly and melodic sounds of Waits's music. The quintet’s first release was back in 2010, on the simply titled Innocent When You Dream: Celebrating The Music of Tom Waits (Collective Records). While I missed that release, I was pleased to discover this new record of eleven Waits songs beautifully rendered in all their splendour by Shragge’s band. The quintet features Jonathan Lindhorst on tenor sax, Ryan Butler on guitar, Nico Dunn on drums, and Dan Fortin on bass. Three tracks on the album also feature Joe Grass on pedal steel guitar. The album was recorded in Montreal at Studio 270 and the results are wonderful. The band understands the earthiness of Waits's music from the bottom up as opposed to a top-down approach that only works if you’re playing for a vocalist. This quintet has a lot more freedom to play Waits as a joyful grind with melody. Highlights include the quintet’s versions of “Chicago” and “Down In The Hole,” but I also love the ballads “Ol 55” and “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” 

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and bluegrass veterans Old Crow Medicine Show celebrated by performing the two-disc album at a concert in Nashville. Columbia records recently released the performance on a single CD and the results are fantastic. The energy is infectious by this talented 7-piece band, led by Ketch Secor, and it’s in full force on this spirited tribute -- which has traces of the Blonde on Blonde studio recording but really sounds more like Dylan and The Band on the live Before the Flood, released in 1974. 50 Years of Blonde On Blonde fully expresses the love many of the current generation of American musicians feel for this artist, who recently turned 76 years old. While Dylan goes for the music of his youth by performing the songs of Frank Sinatra, Old Crow Medicine Show play the music of their youth, all captured in the CMA Theater over two nights in May 2016. Nothing is left to chance: the roaring intro of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is matched by the beauty and subtlety of “Just Like A Woman.” The highlight for me is a majestic version of “One Of Us Must Know,” one of Dylan’s most dramatic and passionate songs. What keeps the album fresh is the group’s eclectic approach to the songs, which often cross-pollinates folk, country, blues and gospel into one compelling and enjoyable sound. The band shows an unbridled enthusiasm for the music and their chance to play the whole thing in concert was clearly an opportunity they couldn’t refuse. This year the band is performing Blonde On Blonde as part of their regular concert tour. Clearly two nights were not enough.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. John will be signing copies of his book, Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) this Saturday June 3rd from 4:30 to 7:30pm at Indigo Books & Music, 55 Bloor Street West, Toronto.

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