Theater Review: “Rain Dogs” — A Humdinger of a Tribute to the Music of Tom Waits
The idea of having glittery, Bettie Page-y young women clad in leather and thongs undulate to music by Tom Waits in any context is pretty much guaranteed to work.
Rain Dogs, performed by Peter Mulvey and The Crumbling Beauties and Babes in Boinkland (Lipstick Criminals) at Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Cambridge, MA, May 18.
By Matt Hanson
So what if I told you that there was going to be a concert consisting of a live band covering Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs in its entirety, accompanied by burlesque dancers? Sounds pretty good, right? Almost too good even, like the whole concept makes such obvious, intuitive sense that it couldn’t possibly end up being as cool in execution as it sounds on paper. Well, dear reader, be not afraid. I witnessed this very state of affairs last night at Oberon (with a performance tomorrow night, May 18th)) and am happy to report that the entire evening went off quite swimmingly indeed.
The band in question would be Peter Mulvey and The Crumbling Beauties. The burlesque belonged to Lipstick Criminals, aka Babes in Boinkland. Mulvey last came to Boston with Tom Waits on the brain when he gave the soup-to-nuts treatment to Waits’s superb Small Change. This time he was armed with a crack band of miscreants who gave a faithful but unique and entirely worthy rendition of Waits material. Waits is, of course, unmistakable. Mulvey wisely chose not to ape the master’s Satchmo-guzzles-whiskey-with-Brecht routine. He hit them ol’ blue notes, though, with a bluesy charm and the occasional jazzy crescendo.
The whole band was on point, not reproducing the source material but interpreting it with due reverence and appreciation. They were in character, too – snappy suits and hats, dressed for the occasion in proper swank hobo style. Particular standouts were “Goody” on electric, making Marc Ribot’s funky primitivism his own. Matt Lorenz crouched by the percussion kit, clanging on what looked like miniature glass bottles like a hip Harry Patch He also sat in on saw, used to beautifully atmospheric effect on a spacey and poignant version of “Time.” The interesting twist came with Barry Rothman, who supplied eerie, disembodied samples from obscure old noir movies (I thought I heard The Naked City?) spun from old records as mid-show interludes. Occasionally he also added sound effects, backing vocals and the occasional echo distortion. At the end of the night he was thanked by Mulvey for “spiritual guidance” as well, so feel free to let that guide your imagination.
Refreshingly, Peter Mulvery and The Crumbling Beauties took the track list as a blueprint, not as a color by numbers. Highlights included a whip-smart “Jockey Full of Bourbon” a suitably sinister “Clap Hands” and an extra-countrified “Blind Love.” If you know Rain Dogs already, it stands to reason that you’re going to love hearing it live. If you already have a favorite Rain Dogs song, then you can see why this entire concept is kind of brilliant from the get-go. There’s something wonderful about reviving a record that never loses its angular glory and is about as sui generis as it gets. You’ve got to love a record with cover art featuring a celebratory embrace of two mental patients. The whole comprehensive live cover show thing needs to happen more often. It’s too good an idea for only Phish to do it.
Not to mention the burlesque! This is the truly the frame that completes the picture. The idea of having glittery, Bettie Page-y young women clad in leather and thongs undulate to Tom Waits in any context is pretty much guaranteed to work. After all, the music practically begs to tango till they‘re sore: “Well they play that tarantella and all the hounds they start to roar…I’ll tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past, so send me off to bed forever more.” But the addition of burlesque makes intuitive sense on another level. It visually connects Waits’s music to the tradition from which it lovingly borrows. It takes a spark from some of the iconography of hip bohemian culture through the decades – a little cabaret here, a little ’50s pinup there.
All the girls had names like doughnuts that have names that sound like prostitutes: Sugar Dish, Pixy Dust, Honey Pie, etc. They did their own choreography, too, which worked rather well with Mulvey and the Crumbling Beauties cookin’ up a storm behind them. Rain Dogs is sexy all right, but it’s also weird, like a midget’s bar mitzvah is weird. I’m not being facetious, either: this was apparently one of Waits’s instructions to the musicians on the original record. Suffice to say, Rain Dogs is a record that waves its own freak flag proudly. This provided an opportunity for the ol’ writhe and wink, certainly, but there was also room made for some mini-narratives and interpretive dance.
In “9th and Hennepin”, the haunting spoken word piece was accompanied by choreography inspired by “a junkie spotted in Central Square” which wasn’t as interesting as it might have been. The music carried the imagery, rather than the other way around. At one point during a performance of the title track there was a chorus line dressed in dog masks and yellow raincoats, which is about as entertaining as a visual pun can be. The Lipstick Criminals brought out the seductive side to the record, but also its gleeful abandon. It was hard not to notice how much fun everyone was having, regardless of the guy who seemed to be live-tweeting during a spontaneous table dance.
In all, the show was a humdinger and a proper tribute to Waits’s music, which needs to be played live as often as possible, and with as much dancing as possible. I’d pay good money to see what else Mulvey (and for that matter, whoever else who can belly up to the bar) could do with the rest of Waits’s’ catalogue. Waits doesn’t really tour any more, probably due to age and general reclusiveness than anything else. But that’s no reason why his songs can’t tour without him. It all starts with the audience, of course. If any of the above sounds appealing to you, I’d heave away as soon as possible to the next showing. Climb aboard the shipwreck train. For you are a Rain Dog, too.
Matt Hanson is a freelance writer living outside Boston. His poetry and criticism has previously appeared in The Millions and Knot From Concentrate, He was a staff writer at Flak Magazine until its untimely demise. Ekphrasis, his poetry chapbook, was published by Rhinologic Press.