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Bright Phoebus Sings Tom Waits

At Martin Simpson's 60th Birthday Bash part 1 on 3rd May Fay Hield announced that Bright Phoebus would be putting on a Tom Waits night at the Greystones in July. This would be the first trial run of shows to take place at various festivals throughout the summer. Being a huge Tom Waits fan and having heard some excellent folk renditions of Waits songs, ie Fay's Briar and the Rose, Spiers and Boden doing Innocent When You Dream and Heidi Talbots interpretation of Time I was captured straight away and noted it for the diary.

Bright Phoebus is a collective of musicians mainly around the Sheffield area. Tonight's musicians were Roy Bailey, Martin Simpson, Jon Boden, Fay Hield, Nancy Kerr, James Fagan, Andy Cutting, Jess Arrowsmith, Sharron Kraus, Rowan Rheingans, Sam Sweeney, Andy Seward, Rob Harbron, Neil McSweeney and Richard Hawley.
It was a very hot night both musically and temperature wise, my car dashboard read 28C as I approached Greystones late afternoon. I was in time to hear part of the sound check and it did sound very good indeed. The  Back Room at Greystones, Sheffield was so hot that the room had fans with bowls of ice in front of them blowing into the audience. Free water was also dispensed in an attempt to keep everyone cool. A couple of things Greystones lacks is decent air conditioning (how many times is it needed in Sheffield?) and some decent stage lighting. Anyone not at the centre of the stage is almost invisible. 

The idea for this show came from the 2012 Shrewsbury Folk Festival where Fay and her band The Hurricane Party performed The Briar and the Rose, a song from Tom Waits 1993 album THE BLACK RIDER. A suggestion was made about an album of Tom Waits songs. Fay's partner being Jon Boden who is an unashamed Tom Waits geek could supply lots of advice and to him it was a labour of love. Andy Bell the sound engineer was credited by Fay as doing most of the work in getting everyone together and making it happen. Bright Phoebus will be touring this show at this summer's folk festivals and hopefully in due course a CD will emerge. On tonight's showing I, for one, really look forward to that. There was little evidence of the familiar gravelly Tom Waits tones that we usually attribute  to these songs, not that there is anything wrong with Tom's voice. The nearest to that was Richard Hawleys fairly rocky interpretation of Gun Street Girl. There were glorious harmonies at times and a far more 'folky' arrangement of the songs than the originals. What really shone out was the fact that all the artists, especially Jon, had a deep respect and reverence to the Waits song book over the years and that this night was definitely not work for them, the enjoyment and enthusiasm was plain to see and hear. I've often heard Martin Simpson say "I love my job", that was very evident tonight, not only for Martin but for everyone involved in this show. One of the wonderful things about this show was the sheer range of Waits covers performed. Songs taken from 11 different CDs starting with 1973's CLOSING TIME to 2006 BAWLERS were given a folk twist. Many who are put off Tom Waits by his voice will probably be taken by these versions. The musical influences and styles on show were well outside the traditional folk style. Martin Simpson was playing electric, Sam Sweeney was giving a drum kit a serious workout. Fiddles contributed to semi classical string quartet style to almost gypsy dance music.

The evenings proceedings were started by a solid solo performance by local Neil McSweeney who then brought on Bright Phoebus members Andy Seward on bass and Sam Sweeney on fiddle/drums to accompany him. 

After a short 'cool down' break. Unofficial MC Roy Bailey sang In the Neighbourhood from SWORDFISH TROMBONES. Roy then introduced Sharron Kraus who performed Another Man's Vine (BLOOD MONEY). The on stage members fluctuated according to the song. Mostly ever-present were Martin Simpson playing electric guitar and performing some biting slide guitar throughout, Andy Cutting playing, as ever, immaculate melodeon and Andy Seward on double bass. Rob Harbron played both keyboards and squeeze boxes. Jon Boden played fiddle and guitar. Even a banjo or two made an appearance. Serious Tom Waits fanatic Jon Boden was next lead vocalist, admitting he was spoilt for choice for drunken pub ballads performed Jersey Girl (HEART ATTACK AND VINE), a song known to most non Tom Waits fans due to a certain Mr Springsteen having included it in his set list. The first set was relatively gentle compared to the second. Next song was Little Trip To Heaven (CLOSING TIME) beautifully sung by  Nancy accompanied by Jess Arrowsmith, a simple arrangement with Nancy playing autoharp. Nancy described this as 'fluffy' Tom Waits. Tom Waits never sounded like that no matter how much you've had to drink. Jess then took lead vocals on You Can Never Hold Back Spring (BAWLERS) ably assisted by what amounted to a string quartet of fiddles. Lead vocals then switched back to Nancy for Whistle Down The Wind (BONE MACHINE). The relatively short first set was brought to a close with a good audience participation in  Hold On (MULE VARIATIONS) with Rowan Rheingans taking lead vocal. Roy gave everyone a few minutes to go and cool down, get a drink and get ready for the second much longer set.

Fay got the traditional raffle underway. After all what's a folk night without a raffle? Roy then tried to get everyone seated to start the second set. Guest Richard Hawley kicked off proceedings with a superb rendition of Gun Street Girl (RAIN DOGS). If the first half was gentle then this was a change. Lots more volume with Martin playing seriously good electric slide guitar, a change from his usual style. Sam Sweeney was pounding the drum kit  doing a fair imitation of John Bonham . Opening act Neil then kept up the pace with a rousing version of Cold Cold Ground (FRANK'S WILD YEARS) featuring, some superb accordian playing from Andy. Next was a lower tempo Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards) (CLOSING TIME) from Sharron with Jon Boden giving (mainly wrong) information about the song and album it came from, he did sound very confident about his facts though. He made up for that with some great fiddle playing. Many accusations of geek from Martin Simpson at this point. In true folky fashion the audience joined in with the choruses.

James Fagan then joined the stage commenting on Australia's loss of the first Ashes Test and celebrating that Tom Waits even wrote songs for Australians. James kept up the lower tempo ably assisted by genius Andy Cutting on Town With No Cheer (SWORDFISH TROMBONES). James said there was an Australian parody of this song envisaging the worst conceivable Australian disaster- A town with no beer! James introduced Fay who gave the background to this project before performing with Jon a beautiful version of Briar and the Rose (THE BLACK RIDER), squeeze boxes, fiddle and bass being the accompaniment. This got a superb reception from the audience. Next vocals were from Martin Simpson who managed to put his own unique stamp on Day After Tomorrow (REAL GONE). One of Martin's gifts is to put his own style on any cover songs he performed, this was no exception. Jon next, getting the audience, who didn't need much encouragement, to join in with Rain Dogs from the album of the same name. Sam's drums and the rest of the band gave this the Waits jaunty feel but more folky than the original. Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr playing superbly on this song. The shows starter Roy Bailey played the last song of the set . He did admit to feeling a bit odd to be a 78 year old singing a bouncy version of  I Don't Want To Grow Up (BONE MACHINE), more the traditional Martin Simpson guitar on this one, great and enthusiastic singing both from the band and audience. They weren't going to get away without an encore and I'm surprised they got away with just one. Jon led the band and audience in a rousing version of Come On Up To The House (MULE VARIATIONS) taking the time to inform the audience of some of his favourite Tom Waits lines. Roy brought the proceedings to a close in his own inimitable manner.
It was a superb night, enjoyed by audience and band. Bring on the festivals and also the CD.

Keith Belcher
Northern Sky