Swordfishtrombones Revisited at National Concert Hall, 29th October 2019
It is, perhaps, the best time of year to embrace the strange and unconventional. Hallowe’en is not so much just around the corner but right next door, and Dublin’s cultural calendar is saturated with celebrations of the macabre, unusual and mythic. In keeping with these (although perhaps not intentionally) is the latest in the National Concert Hall’s Perspectives Series: Swordfishtrombones Revisited. A homage to Tom Waits’ 1983 album, tonight’s concert is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist David Coulter, who has assembled a veritable supergroup of performers. As Coulter noted in his interview with Eanna Cunnane, the ‘revisited’ in this evening’s title is something of a misnomer: in some cases, the ensemble evokes the style and sounds of Waits’ album, in others, they are completely reimagined.
One of the most striking of the latter is the group’s performance of ‘Trouble’s Braids’. Gone is the heavy percussion and frantic bassline of the original recording, replaced with atmospheric bowed harmonics in double bass, flute drones, and quiet guitar riffs. Waits’ gruff recitations are transformed by LA based performance artist Dorian Wood, becoming chant-like but no less strange. The performance borders on the spiritual in its bizarre minimalism, Woods’s declamation leaving the audience rapt for what’s to come next.
What’s next is nothing short of superb, as Cavan native Lisa O’Neill marches rhythmically onstage to the instantly recognisable stomping of ‘Underground’. There are drums banging, percussive double bass, and O’Neill’s distinctive rasp warning of mysterious subterranean goings-on. Nadine Shah brings us from the raging to the soulful in a gentle and haunting rendition of ‘In the Neighbourhood’, with Coulter’s ensemble returning to the drones and pizzicato bass of ‘Trouble’s Braids’. ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ sees the Tynesider deliver one of Waits’ more macabre and humourous tales. There’s something truly whimsical in hearing Waits’ tale of an ill-fated marriage and unfortunate dog (“A little Chihuahua named Carlos/That had some kind of skin disease and was totally blind”) intoned on as stage that most often plays home to our orchestras. The cacophony that ensues is no less joyous: the uptempo drums forming the basis for rhythmically flashing lights, bowed saws, and vamping organ chords.
Instrumentals ‘Just Another Sucker on the Vine’ and ‘Dave the Butcher’ are, alternatively, evocative of demented fairgrounds and lounge music for the end of the world. The wailing saxophone of the latter, and the cornet of the former highlight the diverse range of brass performer Terry Edwards and his fellow musicians. It’s the most bizarre collection of instruments that have graced the NCH’s stage in a while: there are bullroarers, an Ondes Martenot, a bowed saw, and even a waterphone for good measure. All together, the evening’s performances make for the weirdest, but most enjoyable, sound bath you’ve ever taken. Woods’ return for ‘Down, Down, Down’ inarguably takes us to a delightfully demonic type of church. With their bestial (but still deeply melodic) howling, Edwards’ blasts of bass saxophone, syncopated drums and tambourines, it’s how you might imagine the gospel choir of the damned.
It’s a deeply fitting tribute to an artist who might be considered the Oscar the Grouch or Diogenes of alternative music, whose opus ranges from the maniacal to the moving, drawing on idioms both archaic and modern. While Waits’ music gives a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes grim glimpse into the world, Coulter unarguably succeeds in his wish to give the audience “a f**king good night out!”