HOPEWELL — More than a dozen Finger Lakes Community College faculty and alumni musicians have been putting in long hours rehearsing for what has become an annual tradition in honor of experimental musician and raconteur Tom Waits.
The ensemble Drop Dead Suits and female vocalists Sad Luck Dames will recreate Waits’ “Swordfishtrombones” album in a concert at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 4, in Stage 14 at the main campus, 3325 Marvin Sands Drive. Entry is $2 for the general public or free with an FLCC ID.
The event, called “Swordfishtrombones Revisited,” celebrates the 30th anniversary of the album’s release as well as Waits’ birthday — he turns 63 on Dec. 7. It’s the fourth year faculty, staff and alumni have come together for a Waits celebration at FLCC.
“Swordfishtrombones” was named the “second greatest album of all time” by Spin Magazine in 1989. It represents a major shift in Waits’ musical style as he experimented with less common instruments like marimba, bells and glass harmonica. The album is composed of several vignettes, many focused on servicemen. The song “In the Neighborhood” is the album’s centerpiece.
“Waits’ songs tend to be populated by a cast of characters who are down on their luck and dislocated,” said Curt Nehring Bliss, director of honors studies at FLCC and organizer of the event. “This album is in some ways a real heartfelt look at the range of characters you can encounter in your neighborhood – if you stop to look.”
Nehring Bliss, of Middlesex, will host the event and reflect on the album’s central themes. “It’s really a sympathetic and empathetic look at the range of people among us, who aren’t always understood,” he said. “This album was composed 30 years ago, yet it’s incredibly timely now.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s recordings — nearly 20 albums over five decades — have had a significant influence on Nehring Bliss, dating back to his days studying at Siena College. He has found many fellow Waits fans in the college community.
The Waits tribute has become a popular annual event, drawing not only fans from across the region but also supporters of the performing faculty and alumni, many of whom are finding success in their own bands in the Rochester and Finger Lakes region. Among them are alumni Evyn Grassl of Farmington and Brian Thibodeau of Canandaigua. Their group, The Ev n Bri Duo, keeps a busy performance schedule and recently opened for two-time Grammy nominee Shemekia Copeland at the German House Theatre in Rochester.
Thibodeau has performed in all three Waits events. “It gives me an opportunity to see my fellow alumni and faculty and to be able to play music with them again,” he said.
Another alumnus taking part in the Waits tribute is Justin Rister of East Rochester. “All of us celebrate, on different levels, the music of Tom Waits,” said Rister, who is in the band Moho Collective. “For all of us to come together and celebrate him as a community is a big thing and it ties into the offerings of the FLCC Honors House. They try to cultivate art, music and writing. I’m definitely happy to be a part of it.”
Other alumni performing at the Waits tribute are Nash Bock of Hemlock; husband and wife Leo and Rachael Medler of Spencerport; Nick Heffron of Lafayette; Lisa Salvaggio Clark of Bloomfield; and Meredith Faulkner of Canandaigua. Bock and Medler are also adjunct faculty members at FLCC.
“It is an honor to work with musicians of such a high caliber, who have connections to FLCC,” said Nehring Bliss. “It’s a real testament to our music program that we have such high-quality musicians coming here and finding such success.”
In addition to Nehring Bliss, faculty and staff taking part include his wife and collaborator, Nani Nehring Bliss, professional writing tutor, and David McGuire of Rochester, professor of music. Rochester musician Ryan Yarmel is also part of the Drop Dead Suits, whose name is derived from a Waits song. Bob Potter of Naples, FLCC’s music recording studio manager, will work the sound system.
Organizers hope to continue celebrating Waits at least until 2023. That event, of course, would celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first album, “Closing Time.”
For video highlights of last year’s Tom Waits tribute, visit FLCCconnects.com. For more information, contact Curt Nehring Bliss, honors studies director, at (585) 785-1367 or nehrincd@flcc.edu. Visit the Honors House online at www.Facebook.com/honorshouse.