Mercy and Grand: The Tom Waits Project at Spitalfields Winter Festival, London

Mercy and Grand is a collaborative project commissioned by the UK group Opera North, in which a group of musicians coalescing around Gavin Bryars perform new arrangements of music predominantly by Tom Waits. It received its London première this Tuesday as part of Spitalfields Winter Festival, in the atmospheric if cold Shoreditch Church.

There is something always fascinating about works at ‘musical crossroads’, which is where the programme notes positioned this project, and in advance I was very curious about how the genre mix would play. After all, regardless of questions of style, this was to be a composed work: it was in two halves, both of ten or so pieces, and each half was more or less through-composed and in a rigid and structural order.

Tom Waits – Photo by Jesse Dylan

However, it was also a work for a band of not-dissimilar forces to those originally used by Waits himself. Billed as a ‘circus band’, it featured prominent accordion, harmonium and saxophone parts, as well as Bryars himself on double bass. A standard, Percy Grainger-style concert ‘dressing-up’, this was not.

I don’t intend this negatively by any means. I listen to Tom Waits often and take him seriously on his own terms. (This is not the case with Percy Grainger.) It’s just that Mercy and Grand slightly gave the impression that the band had stripped Waits down, and then re-clothed him in a meticulously well-fitted version of the same old jacket he always wears. This was a musical reinvention, but one which came surprisingly close to the original object reinvented. And the question then to ask is what exactly in the original really needed changing. As the evening progressed, the less I thought about this question, the more I enjoyed the music.

There were, naturally, plenty of differences from Waits’ originals. For a start, they were sung by the decidedly un-gravelly Jessica Walker, who gave a dramatic and declamatory performance, striking enough in itself to make me periodically forget about Waits altogether. The decision to adopt a completely different vocal style to Waits’ own was a good one – no-one sounds like Tom Waits – and her performance, like the band’s as a whole, was confident and winning.

The dynamic between the gruff and the gentle is, of course, already very pointed in the originals; it’s the extraordinary impact of his vocals which gives Waits’ slow songs and ballads such enormous impact, as ‘Innocent When You Dream’ (below) testifies. Bryars and his band’s jovial and slightly faster take on this number, given a sweet vocal rendering by Walker, initially seemed to lose the irony of Waits’ version: I was unconvinced at first. But what made this a success was the shadow the lyrics cast over the song: this was not a skewed delivery of a sweet song, like the original, but rather a sweet delivery of a song with surprising lyrical bite. The depth of Waits’ composition was brought out more fully by the new arrangement.

Tom Waits - You're Innocent When You Dream

There were a few misses in the first half as well: I didn’t buy the rather theatric presentation of ‘Poor Edward’ or the slightly-too-straight ‘Little Drop of Poison’, which (maybe ironically) lost the song’s edge. But inventive arrangements of ‘Innocent…’, ‘Alice’ (featuring a delicate and slinky bass solo from Bryars), and Nino Rota’s ‘Eight and a Half’ compensated well.

And the second half felt a lot more assured, with a stronger sense of connection between numbers and generally more boldness in the arrangements. The sparse, almost ambient introduction given to ‘Broken Bicycles’ felt like a confident assertion of what could usefully be added to Waits’ songs through the band’s more compositional approach. Once the song got going, it could have drifted further from the aesthetic of the original – like most of the other pieces – but it still benefited from its new context and was an absorbing listen.

Gavin Bryars – Photo by Jim Four

Equally effective was the closing section, encompassing the folk song ‘Barbara Allan’ and Waits’ songs ‘The Briar and the Rose’ and ‘Lullaby’. The band’s confidence in linking and contrasting this material made for a convincing conclusion: at the very least, their commitment to making something beautiful was clear.

I’m not entirely sure, though, that the evening as a whole was as secure in concept as its ending. Hearing Gavin Bryars speak before the concert, what came across most clearly was his enormous respect for Waits’ music and musicianship. He was evidently moved, for instance, when recalling the time they had spent in the studio together recording Jesus’ Blood. While respect and humility are of course not bad things, I did wonder if perhaps a more brutal approach might have helped this project find its voice. Bryars’ pre-concert insistence that this was ‘not a tribute’ to Waits just about held water, but an aspect of tribute or homage did still remain throughout.

The sit-down, fixed-set-list formality that Bryars and his circus band inevitably brought to Waits’ music may not have totally convinced. But as evidence for the scope of reinterpretation possible with Waits, this was very effective. Mercy and Grand does not offer a solution to the contemporary-classical/pop divide. In fact, it didn’t really seem to self-identify as at this ‘crossroads’. It does, however, constitute a subtle reimagining of some beautiful music, which will be well worth hearing when it comes out on CD next year.

 Paul Kilbey writes on music and culture for publications including Culture Wars, Huffington Post and Bachtrack. Follow him on Twitter @paulkilbey.