Southside Johnny with LaBamba’s Big Band – Grapefruit Moon: Songs of Tom Waits (2008)

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There are times when a person experiences moments of such extreme happiness that it’s difficult to contain the emotion. I suspect that even the most curmudgeonly people have them. I should know, because I have my moments of curmudgeon on a daily basis. Anyway…for me, this “super-happy” can feel like the top of my head popped off, letting a stream of brightly-colored prayer flags out, the message of bliss radiating out to the rest of the world.

Music does this to me. A lot. Just the right melodic fragment, lyric, chord change, or bit of concert magic can send me off. Examples? Emmylou Harris offering up those angelic harmonies during a live version of “The Maker,” Norah singing “love in the time of war is not fair” on Not Too Late’s “Wish I Could,” the time I was invited on stage to play guitar during “All I Want Is Everything” at a Southside Johnny show (OK, this never happened, but I like saying it because it makes me all tingly), Tom Waits tossing that handful of glitter in the air as “Jockey Full of Bourbon” went into the chorus.

Those last two items are instructive as both Tom Waits and Southside Johnny sit very near the top of my favorite artists list. When I found out that Southside was working on a Waits covers album, the news seemed almost too good to be true. Heck, the wait was so long that many fans began to think that the project was a figment of Southside’s twisted and snarky sense of humor. Well, I’m here to report that the combination of Waits’ tunes, Southside’s enthused growl, and Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg’s fabulous horn charts have finally arrived to scare away any wiggling air molecules left over from the Scarlett Johansson debacle.

There are so many highlights that it’s tough to pick a starting point. “Down, Down, Down” blasts away with electrifying unison harmonica and guitar lines, a swinging vocal delivery by Mr. Lyon, all lifted higher with solo turns by Southside, Bobby Bandiera (on guitar) and some thermonuclear horns. “Dead and Lovely” begins with a bit of Western saloon piano before the horns blow everybody out through those swinging doors. Southside steps back in to deliver a soulful vocal supported by just a little percussion and twangy guitar. “Temptation” is delivered all slow and sultry, with a harpsichord circling in the background. The big twist comes near the end when a huge chorus steps in and the song turns Latin, as if Eddie Palmieri had walked through the door. Props to Mark Pender for a piercing trumpet solo.

Some might complain that most of Waits’ biggest “hits” (a funny concept with Tom Waits) were not included here but, in truth, this is one of Grapefruit Moon‘s strengths. While it would have been interesting to hear the fun to be had with “Sixteen Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six,” “Downtown Train,” and “Jersey Girl,” is that something we really needed to hear? Sure, with perfect hindsight, I can say that I would have missed the secret agent man vibe of “All The Time In The World,” Southside’s searching vocal on “Johnsburg, Illinois,” and the shimmering horns of “Shiver Me Timbers.”

On the other hand, it’s not like the Tom Waits deal was completely abandoned. Listen no further than “Walk Away,” a bluesy Southside/Waits duet. Some would say that neither man has was would be normally considered a “beautiful” voice, and yet my ears tell me this is the album’s center. It swaggers. It struts. Best of all, those two voices employ that mysterious musical alchemy to create something else. I can just feel my bliss radiating!

You want to experience some extreme happiness? Check out Grapefruit Moon. Just because the top of my head has temporarily popped off is no reason to ignore this advice

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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