Can’t hardly Waits
The St. Christopher Project
Reno, NV 89509
“Hang on St. Christopher, now don’t let me go/Get me to Reno, and bring it in low”—these are lyrics from Tom Waits’ 1986 ode to the patron saint of travelers. Reno is apparently a favorite vacation destination for Waits. “Hang on St. Christopher” isn’t his only song that references traveling to the Big Little.
Waits is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and actor. He’s familiar to movie-goers for his roles in films like the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the 2003 Coffee and Cigarettes. But he’s best known for his gruff, full-throated vocals and his unusual musical compositions that incorporate elements of Dixieland jazz, hobo folk, screaming noise rock and just about everything else you can think of—up to and including kitchen sink percussion.
Waits’ eclectic oeuvre, spanning four decades and dozens of genres, is an inspiration for many contemporary songwriters, composers and musicians. A group of local musicians, most of them University of Nevada, Reno students and members of the sprawling Reno Jazz Syndicate, have come together to pay homage to Waits with the St. Christopher Project. The group features Gary Claude on drums, Kevin Lum on keyboards, Chris Clark on sax, Joey Berger on guitar and mandolin, the ubiquitous Zack Teran on bass, and leader Tristan Selzler on vocals, guitar, trumpet and megaphone.
The St. Christopher Project has found a home at Reno’s St. James Infirmary, and they’ll be anchoring a celebration there of Waits’ music on his 60th birthday, Dec. 7—“A Night that Will Live in Infamy.” The performance will also feature guest turns from members of Buster Blue, My Flag is on Fire and Blueberry Love Machine.
The diversity of his songbook is why Waits has such an enduring appeal for musicians.
“Each tune is its own little universe, with its own rules,” says Selzler. “It’s not like you learn one song, and now we know how to do Tom Waits.”
Selzler mentions a few examples: “Alice” is like a jazz standard, and “Way Down in the Hole” is almost like a Motown song. Additionally, Waits’ music is exciting for audiences. Most casual music fans have at least a passing familiarity with him, and most musicians and hardcore music nerds love him.
Selzler is originally from Redlands, Calif., and is currently enrolled at UNR, studying jazz piano. When asked to name a favorite Waits tune, he mentions “Watch Her Disappear,” a minimal track with pump organ, violin and a spoken vocal.
“He achieves this really sad vibe, and recites this poem,” says Selzler. “It’s just really poetic.” Then, surprisingly, he adds, “We don’t do it.”
Most musicians in a tribute project would gravitate to the material that’s most effective in a live setting, but it’s a testament to Selzler’s sincerity and devotion that his favorite song is one that, by his own admission, “doesn’t transfer to live performance.”
However, one that he says the group performs effectively is “Earth Died Screaming,” a percussive, apocalyptic song. Selzler describes their arrangement as “huge and visceral.”
Wait’s distinctive voice provides a unique challenge for Selzler.
“Initially, how I approached it was to make it sound as much like Waits as possible,” he says.
Then he had the epiphany that Tom Waits sings in the guise of different characters and that rather than ape Waits’ style, he should play the characters. It’s like acting—good actors immerse themselves in their characters rather than imitate another actor.
“It’s about being believable,” says Selzler. “In ‘Earth Died Screaming,’ for example, we’re up there trying to command this primal groove. You wouldn’t believe it if we were smiling and chewing gum.”
Since Waits seems to love Reno, Selzler thinks he might show up at a St. Christopher Project gig.
“I keep expecting him to show up at a show,” says Selzler. “He’s just weird enough to do that.”