Tom Waits – “On Broadway”

Now this is a new one! Everyone knows that musicians record songs in tightly controlled stereos, as they have since music was invented in the early 1900s, but get this – your entertainment for the night, were you at the Sydney Opera House this 1979 evening, was your typical talented studio musician, Mr. Thomas Alan “Tom” Waits, playing the songs in real time, as if they were theatrical performances!

This bizarre innovation has advantages and disadvantages, as one may expect. Because it is not recorded in a studio there’s no ability to edit the vocal and musical tracks to perfection, so annoyances like how Mr. Waits speaks half the chorus of “Tom Traubert’s Blues” robs it of the prettiness of that “Waltzing Matilda” melody, or the unnecessarily lengthy-ass version of “Burma Shave” aren’t edited out or re-recorded, even if we wish they could be. However, numerous benefits are added to the show; namely that songs can be (and are!) sung differently than on record, meaning that listening to them isn’t the same every time! Mr. Waits even sings a few songs he normally doesn’t sing, like a spirited version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and a sarcastic “Hey, Big Spender” that comes in the middle of “Small Change”, a song that normally has no jazz standards in the middle of it at all! The musicians even do things differently than on record, allowing one to hear Mr. Waits’ band improvise entirely new notes. That horn player is really something! The setting even allows Mr. Waits to relate a few personal anecdotes to the audience, a tactic charming in this setting that would come across as crass filler on a record.

Yes, it’s quite the show. And quite the idea, as well! If you ask me, musicians might find it lucrative to travel from city to city playing their music, as crowds other than this one might appreciate the opportunity to hear songs in real-time. That said, I feel that the future of recorded versions of such may not have as bright a future. This pioneering example may quickly become an exemplary example, with its warm stage banter, high recording quality, and variation from the songs’ recorded versions. It’s worth listening repeatedly, not just for curiosity, as it elevates songs like “Jitterbug Boy” and “Romeo Is Bleeding”, not previously my favourites, into, well, my favourites. The former becomes a mini-symphony with “Better Off Without a Wife”, already a favourite. “Pasties and a G-String” becomes a completely new-sounding song as a medley with “Hokey Pokey” and it’s also quite grand. But it’s easy to see how these real-time recordings could easily become contract filler, poorly recorded rote run-throughs of familiar material meant to bilk a few extra bucks out of die-hard fans. Of course, due to the potential for financial gain, I predict that such recordings will become industry standard before long.



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