Neptune Quartet: Table Top Joe
Tom Waits is an interesting subject for a week of covers, because his art is almost impossible to duplicate. Waits has a knack for portraying vagabonds, drunkards, and freaks in a way that is honest but sympathetic. Waits shows these characters with all of their warts, but he gives them their dignity. This delicate balance comes as much from Waits’ performance as his writing, so this quality is often lost in cover versions. But artists are drawn to his writing, so they must make these characters their own. Reinvention is almost always required, as we shall probably see for most of this week. But I keep hedging. That’s because I found this remarkable performance of Table Top Joe that largely preserves the feel of Waits original, while filling out the arrangement.
In fact, for all of the reasons I mentioned above, Table Top Joe is one of the most unlikely Waits songs for anyone to cover at all. The title character is based on the life of Johnny Eck, who was born with the lower half of his body missing. That’s a picture of Eck above. Even the thought of it is enough to make a person uncomfortable. Eck appeared in the notorious cult horror film Freaks, and he wanted to appear in another film as a mad scientist’s monster. Yet, Tom Waits focuses on Eck’s hopes and dreams, and finds his essential humanity The real life Eck accomplished many things that most people would have considered impossible for him, including conducting an orchestra. He also spent most of the Great Depression working in circus and carnival freak shows. By all accounts, Eck never lost his optimism until a robber took advantage of his physical limitations when Eck was in his seventies. He never seemed to accept the word impossible, and that is what Tom Waits sees in him.
Neptune Quartet is normally an instrumental group, but, for their version of Table Top Joe, they added singer Wes Ivankovich. Neptune Quartet arrange the song for guitars, mandolin, bass, and accordion, in a way that Tom Waits might have done if he thought of it. Ivankovich delivers a vocal that is somewhere between Tom Waits and Dr John, if you can imagine, and it all works beautifully.
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