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November 2008

Southside Johnny with Labamba’s Big Band
Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits
Leroy

As artists as far-ranging as Johnny Cash, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Elvis Costello, Holly Cole and the Hell Blues Choir have proven, there are as many ways to skin a Tom Waits tune as there are Waits tunes to be skinned. But just because the Waits catalog—a multi-stained crazy quilt of stark, gutsy, razor-slice-of-life portraits—is open to wide interpretation doesn’t mean his work is incapable of ruin. Lamentable proof surfaced earlier this year when film star Scarlett Johansson so painfully demonstrated that her sultry screen voice doesn’t transfer to the recording studio, reducing 10 Waits masterpieces to bleating fingerpaintings so dreadfully misdirected that they sometimes sounded like the Pet Shop Boys underwater.

Fortunately, salvation is at hand courtesy of John Lyon, aka Southside Johnny, who, together with his Asbury Jukes, was as central to the R&B-fueled, horn-driven New Jersey Shore scene of the 1970s and ’80s as his wider-recognized pals, and frequent collaborators, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt. Johnny’s original intent was to satisfy his passion for big-band music with an album of Sinatra and Billie Holiday covers. Then, working with trombonist/arranger Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg, he realized that Waits’ material was ideally suited to a big-band setting. Result: a dozen inspired covers built around Johnny’s gritty barroom growl (accept that the spectrum for crushed-glass jazz voices extends from Bob Dorough to Dr. John and you can place Johnny at about the three-quarter mark), ranging from a mellow “Yesterday Is Here” and a seraphic “Johnsburg, Illinois” to an explosive, Basie-capacious “Down Down Down” and a slickly ominous “All the Time in the World” that sounds as if it was lifted from a vintage James Bond flick.

There is no best track here. With an achievement this remarkable, there couldn’t be. But surely most captivating is a hell-invades-heaven, gravel-pit pairing of Johnny and Waits on “Walk Away,” with Waits’ trademark scratch and howl now sounding like a twisted wire hanger left to rust in a hailstorm.

Originally published in November 2008
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