The Waits love is practically palpable when local musicians are asked for their impressions — scheduled performers include David Childers, Todd Busch, Sea of Cortez, The Houston Brothers, Tyre Fyre, Lou Ford and whomever else can muster up the brass ones to take on Waits.
Hazel shares character traits with Waits beyond their ubiquitous pork pie hats, and got his first exposure to Waits via MTV. Watching music videos roughly "23 hours a day" (apparently MTV once aired music videos), Hazel says he caught a snippet of Waits performing "Cold Cold Ground" from Big Time during an MTV news break. He may only have been 11 years old, but this was love at first sight.
"It just blew me away — I had never heard or seen anyone like him," Hazel wrote via e-mail. "Waits has remained such a vital artist when most of his peers have faded. We were rehearsing "Hoist that Rag" from the most recent album, Real Gone, and one of the guys was not that familiar with all the Waits material and assumed that "Hoist" must be a much older tune from one of the early records because it is such a great song. He was shocked to realize that Waits had written it so recently."
John Morris (Tyre Fyre, Snagglepuss) bought Waits' masterpiece Rain Dogs as a high schooler in 1985, and admits Waits "had me at 'Singapore'" (the opening cut).
"I love his musical and life philosophy, which radiates through in every piece he does," Morris wrote via e-mail. "Waits has a grand sense of comedy in his work, which is critical and rare. Having been to the bottom of the subway, and loved it, he sees the dark joke that is being told every day. He once said that 'New York is like a ship, and the water's on fire.' I think that's true of all life, too, since we roll along, always one step away from our destinies.
"Plus, when asked if he had advice for young, aspiring musicians, he said something along the lines of 'Smoke lots of cigars and toss bricks through windows, and you'll be fine.'"
Of course an appreciation of Waits' music and successfully pulling off one of his singular songs — live, too — are distinctly seperate propositions. Despite some similarities in their gruff-voiced singing styles and his years of admiration, Hazel had previously never even tried a Waits cover.
"What strikes me about his work is how simple it seems," Hazel wrote. "But it's fucking difficult. He creates such a unique environment filled with strange over-tones and infectious beauty."
David Childers (David Childers & the Modern Don Juans) has watched and admired Waits' various incarnations ever since his brother turned him on to 1976' Small Change. Childers also remembers Waits getting him through some tough times during law school.
"I would put on The Heart of Saturday Night, and stare out across the tobacco and soybean fields of Harnett County, thinking that one day life would be better, that I would feel that elation and hope that the singer in that song felt," Childers wrote.
With a year or two on many of the performers at this benefit, Childers has done his share of Waits covers over the course of his career.
"(Playing Waits' songs) just makes me appreciate him more because you keep peeling back layers of nuance and meaning," Childers wrote, citing in particuloar a pub gig in Scotland with Eric Lovell where he covered "Whistle Down the Wind" (from '92's Bone Machine) and felt distinctly like the character in the song who "dreamed of places where the circus never ends, then finds himself there."
"More than any other poet, even Dylan, Tom Waits has spoken for me, and seen things and said what he said about them in ways I wish I had the ability to," Childers wrote. "I hope I live to see where else he takes his art. I have no doubt that it will be somewhere that delights and surprises, and makes me say, 'Goddamn! Why didn't I say that!'"
The Second Annual Fool's Brigade benefit ("An Invitation to the Blues — the Music of Tom Waits") takes place Friday at the Visulite Theatre. For more information, go to www.visulite.com.