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Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008

Southside Johnny with LaBamba’s Big Band

Grapefruit Moon: The Songs Of Tom Waits (Leroy Records)

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  The tribute-album idiom has changed. It used to be the cover song: Pat Boone covering Little Richard, for a '50s example of white artists taking black artists' songs into middle-class homes; or Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' "Little Darlin'" becoming a hit by the Diamonds while few even heard the first, utterly untamed version while the white cover hit the charts. And so it went, following a tradition that began much earlier, when the real thing was never the right one for charts and radio.

  Another level of the cover song is typified when The Byrds, covering Bob Dylan for a '60s sound called folk rock, cause the original to matter because it was the authentic reference; even the middle-class began to recognize source material thanks to a new critical canon based on rock music. Then, moving quickly, it became the tribute album. This is where it all becomes something else.

  Tom Waits and so many other artists are receiving tribute albums. This is part of the story; the other is Southside Johnny, who, with the Asbury Jukes, made a dramatic debut with the 1976 album I Don't Want To GoHome. The title track was written by Little Steven Van Zandt and the liner notes were by Bruce Springsteen. The album came out the year after Born To Run and, not unlike what later happened in Seattle once a major artist became manifest, all the other locals tagged along. The New Jersey Invasion resulted in many workers following the Boss onto labels, and perhaps no other was more deserving than Southside Johnny. His first album is still wild and real, wholly uncontrived. Containing Springsteen collaborations and a brilliant Little Steven production, I Don't Want ToGo Home is a classic.

  Grapefruit Moon is not. LaBamba's Big Band is the assemblage of Richie "LaBamba" Rosenberg. The list of players is so long that there barely is liner-note space for "Many, many thanks to Tom and Kathleen for their help and support. Oh…and songs." Indeed, "Oh…and songs." This is neither cover nor tribute album but, unlike John Hammond's startling collection of Tom Waits songs titled Wicked Grin (2001), it's an album of self-indulgent chaos. "Big ups to Bon Jovi for his continued and much-needed support" is crunched into the liner-note material, which sounds like somebody paid for this album or, if not, a name-drop where there should be more about Tom and Kathleen Waits, co-writers of the most important rock 'n' roll canon of the 21st century.

  I lost count at more than 30 names, including a "thank you" section that includes "Rabbi Hershinberg and Father Patrick collectively (for their outstanding version of 'Do The Hustle')." This is not an album of Tom Waits songs-it's a bar mitzvah from hell.

  It's also the destruction of Waits' material. Twelve of his songs are recorded in a live studio performance on Grapefruit Moon, but there is no reason for me to delineate them. Each is mollified through ignorant arrangement and overburdened by pointless musicians, chorus and yelping vocals. In a pre-release interview, Southside Johnny thanks Tom Waits for singing "what may laughingly be called harmony on one song." This is not on the liner notes, but the producer "thanks his beautiful wife." Grapefruit Moon has nothing to do with Waits' artistry but rather the flagging career of a New Jersey guy who has friends in lost places. If you've bought this album, see if you can get a couple of bucks for it at a used CD shop.


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