An Interview with Tom Waits' Tribute Organizer David Anderson

When David Anderson isn't busy leading local psych-folk quartet Tenement Ruth his his wife Melissa, he can be found on stages and in studios around town as an in-demand session player, and he's lent his fiery lead work to bands like Magnolia Summer, Grace Basement, Old Lights and others. But in the rare moments when he doesn't have a six-string in his hands, Anderson has organized a few multi-band tribute nights to beloved singer-songwriters. This past fall he organized a night in honor of the late, great Harry Nilsson, and this Friday he pays tribute to the inimitable Tom Waits. The event, noisily titled "Clank, Boom and Steam," will take place at Off Broadway and will feature the likes of Royal Smokestacks, Tommy Halloran, Magic City, Ransom Note and Demonlover, among others. We caught up with Anderson via email to learn about the joys and potential pitfalls of paying tribute to this American icon.

Christian Schaeffer: No one sings a song like Tom Waits, though many imitators have tried. What makes him an ideal candidate for a tribute night?

David Anderson: When I first considered Waits for a tribute show, I was really thinking of his vast catalog of music. It hadn't really crossed my mind, the issue of people pulling off the vocals, until some bands I approached initially brought it up. You have to make it your own in order to perform it in an honest manner. Trying to do an impression of Tom Waits would be a disaster. I can tell by the excitement from the bands on the bill that this will be an impressive show to say the least and the songs everyone has selected are excellent choices!

Do you find that his songs lend themselves to multiple interpretations despite coming from such a 'sui generis' voice? Do you have any favorite Waits covers?

When you initially listen to his music, it's hard to imagine the songs any other way. I think with some thought and experimenting, you can certainly come up with really original interpretations that come off well. Annie Clark (St. Vincent) does an excellent version of "Big Black Mariah," and of course Neko Case's "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis" is completely moving.

Waits' career can be carved up into thirds: the boho jazz Elektra years, the marimba-fueled Island years and his Americana operatic third act from the late '90s on. Do you have a particular period or style that you love over the others?

I love everything from Swordfishtrombones on. Those albums just resonate with me. That being said, I totally dig the earlier stuff, too. Small Change is one of my favorite albums. "Step Right Up", "The Piano Has Been Drinking"...the whole album is awesome! It's pretty amazing that he has evolved in such a way throughout the years, and been able to sustain such a high level of creativity and originality with out loosing his identity.

As a guitarist yourself, there's plenty to pull from in Waits' catalog, from his own bluesy and understated style to the inimitable licks of Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel. How do you approach these songs as a stylist?

It's funny, I'm a huge Marc Ribot fan and I kind of walked into the songs we are performing with the attitude of "no sweat, I can do this". After the first time rehearsing the songs as a band, Melissa suggested I not play so "on" or perfect on the solos, and she was totally right. I really have been striving to just play to the song with as much emotion as possible. That seems to be what comes through in Ribot's playing.

Is there a certain type of St. Louis band that is ideal for a Tom Waits tribute night?

Yeah, everyone on the bill! Man, there is so much organic talent in this town that it's hard to think of a band in the city that would not be a good candidate for a show like this. It seems like so many of the bands in town are striving to be original and put out really great music, and the community of musicians is unbelievable. Everyone is so supportive each other, it's really cool! Having just done a Harry Nilsson tribute night in the fall, you seem to have a knack for celebrating critically adored songwriters that don't have a bevy of top 40 hits. Who else would you consider paying tribute to in a setting like this?

I'm not sure how to follow this show, and there doesn't seem to be a shortage of tribute shows in this town anyway. I think that's why Nilsson and Waits where more logical choices...let someone else do the next Bob Seger or Lynyrd Skynyrd tributes. Maybe a Philip Glass tribute or Flo & Eddie will be next on the list...who knows.