Ones that got away: Vagabond Saints’ Society

Tim Beeman in the VSS Queen show at the Ramkat in Winston-Salem, NC, March 9, 2018

Music fans in  North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad have had the good fortune for years to have regular opportunities to hear the Vagabond Saints’ Society. The all-star band, led by Doug Davis, pays tribute to great artists from rock history, including Prince, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, Cheap Trick, and many others. For January and February 2019, they made their most ambitious plans to date: a show of Tom Waits songs they would take to venues from Wilmington, N.C., to Johnson City, Tenn. Mitchell Snow, a VSS veteran from the group’s early days, returned from his current home in Toronto to handle the bulk of the lead vocal duties.

Unfortunately, a medical emergency intervened. Snow had a cardiac emergency a few songs into the first show in Johnson City. Some quick-thinking medical pros in the audience helped save his life, and he’s now recovering after surgery and doing well. The VSS had to cancel the rest of the Waits shows.

Which meant Go Triad, the weekly entertainment section of the News & Record and one of my regular writing outlets, no longer had any need for a story about the Greensboro show VSS had planned at the Crown in the Carolina Theatre. Here it is, a preview for a show that never took place:

Mitchell Snow heard the comparisons so often that he avoided singing Tom Waits songs for years.

“When I was a teenager, I thought if I could marry Bob Dylan lyrics to Howlin’ Wolf music, that would be really interesting,” Snow said. “Well of course it was, because somebody had already done it. I didn’t know that at the time.”

Snow has finally embraced the stylistic similarities – at least for a few concerts. He will handle the main vocal duties when Winston-Salem’s Vagabond Saints’ Society (VSS) returns to Greensboro Feb. 1 for a show of Waits songs in the Crown at the Carolina Theatre.

VSS has been around for well over a decade, paying homage to some of the biggest names in popular music history (Prince, David Bowie, the Beatles) and more obscure favorites (XTC, the Velvet Underground). A core group of musicians led by Doug Davis plays behind a stream of guest singers.

Most of their past performances have been in and around Winston-Salem, though VSS has brought two previous shows to the Blind Tiger in Greensboro: Tom Petty and Chicago. For Waits, they’re doing a full-fledged tour that includes the Crown show as well as performances in Johnson City, Tenn., Wilmington, Raleigh, Charlotte and the Ramkat in Winston-Salem Jan. 26.

“Most of our shows are designed to be community projects,” said Davis, who performs regularly with the Plaids, Magnolia Green and the Solid Citizens. “It’s not in our nature to want or need to take it out on the road. But a show like this is a little bit less of a community show and a little bit more of a showpiece. We just decided that it was unusual enough and it might have enough cachet that it might be of interest.”

Waits released his debut album in 1973 and has recorded a couple dozen records in the 46 years since. He is also an actor who has appeared in films such as “Rumblefish,” “Down by Law” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the recent collection of Western shorts by the Coen Brothers on Netflix.

Thom Jurek summarized Waits’s sound for the All Music website: “In the work of American songwriter Tom Waits, swampy blues, Beat poetry, West Coast jazz, Tin Pan Alley, country, 1930s-era cabaret, and post-Civil War parlor songs meet neon-lit carnival music, and the wheezing, clattering, experimental rhythms (often played by makeshift musical instruments from car radios to metal pipes and tin cans …) form a keenly individual musical universe.”

Davis’s “showpiece” characterization comes from Waits’s unique style combined with Snow handling most of the lead vocals (along with acoustic guitar). Snow is a Davie County native and founding member of VSS who played in several bands with Davis, but he moved to Toronto years ago after marrying a Canadian woman.

This will Snow’s first time back with VSS in nearly 10 years. He previously sang lead on shows featuring the songs of other performers with distinctive, unconventional vocals: Bob Dylan and Nick Cave.

“I am the worst singer in the Vagabond Saints, easily,” Snow said. “But this will be the third full show that I have sang fronting the band, which is more than anyone else has ever done.”

Other members of the band include Davis on guitars and vocals; Randall Johnson on standup bass; and Corky McClellan on drums and percussion. Davis usually concentrates on keyboards, but guitarist Jerry Chapman couldn’t make the Waits tour, so Davis shifted into the guitar slot.

The keyboard player for the Waits shows is Jack Gorham, a High Point resident who manages Collector’s Antique Mall in Asheboro. He first played with the group in 2016 when VSS honored “The Last Waltz,” the farewell concert by the original lineup of The Band.

Like Snow, Gorham has been compared to Waits without previously knowing his music.

“Listening to this music, and listening to the lyrics and listening to the structure, I can see why people have said that to me,” Gorham said. “In hindsight, I didn’t realize what a high compliment I was getting. I feel like I’ve been introduced to an old friend.”

As much as he appreciates the comparison, writing his own keyboard parts for the songs has been a challenge. Gorham will play piano, organ, accordion and an instrument new to him: marimba.

“I was familiar with ‘The Last Waltz,’ and I knew what I was getting into,” Gorham said. “This is much different. The writing style is pretty far flung. It’s got everything from songs that sound like Klezmer music to New Orleans to real American folk to something that sounds like it could come out of the American standard jazz book. It’s an amazing collection of music.”

The Waits shows will begin with a brief overview of Waits’s early music and feature a series of guest vocalists from the cities where VSS is performing. Snow will take the mike for the rest of the show, a deep dive into the albums Waits has made beginning with such early 1980s classics as Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs.

“It’s all when he got weird, onward,” Snow said.

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