Tom Waits tribute band plays Friday

SARANAC LAKE — Bob Gagnon never played in a rock band. While friends and classmates wanted to shred and keep rhythm on distorted guitars like Jimmy Page, Gagnon wanted something more melodic with weird time signatures and plenty of space to fill, or not fill.

He has found it with Small Change, a Tom Waits tribute band that will perform at the Waterhole Friday night.

Waits, over his 40-year career, is known for his storytelling and distinct vocals, gravelly New Orleans-style singing with some improvisation. His work often conjures images of smoke-filled bars, late nights and lost loves. Some of his more well-known songs included “Jersey Girl,” “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You” and “Goin’ Out West.”

On top of his music career, Waits has acted in films such as “The Outsiders,” “Coffee and Cigarettes” and most recently “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Fun fact: Heath Ledger based his portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight” on Waits.

Gagnon, the guitarist and singer of Small Change, didn’t fully discover Waits until the 1990s, when a fellow musician showed him Nanci Griffith’s cover of “San Diego Serenade.”

“It was such a heart-wrenching song that I had to find out more about the person who wrote it,” Gagnon said. “Tom Waits never got a lot of FM radio airplay when I was growing up in the ’70s. There was Steve Miller and Queen, but never Tom Waits, so I didn’t know anything about him until I heard that song.”

Gagnon first got the idea for a Waits tribute band in 2009 after he and his group of fellow jazz musicians were invited to play at Nectar’s in Burlington, Vermont, which at the time was known for rock, funk and jam music as well as the original stomping ground for Phish. Gagnon figured his jazz music and repertoire of Cole Porter songs would not be well received, so he and his band played a bunch of Waits songs instead.

He later got a call from someone who saw a video of the performance on Facebook, looking to book the band for a show in Manhattan.

“A couple of months later we were playing at B.B. King’s on 42nd Street,” he said.

Gagnon got into music at the young age of 6, when his father bought him a guitar and a Mel Bay lesson book for Christmas. His father was also a musician and taught Gagnon how to play.

“I’ve heard stories of other families where the dad is the teacher and a lot of the lessons would end in tears,” he said. “I think of the movie ‘Mo’ Better Blues,’ where a kid wants to go outside and play but his mom would say, ‘No, you sit there and play that trumpet. That’s going to be your ticket to something better than what we’re providing you.’ That wasn’t part of the culture with me and my dad.”

Instead, Gagnon’s father took a much more lax approach. He would point to a page in the lesson book and say, “Do that, and when you can, let me know.”

Because Gagnon’s band plays jazz — as Waits did, to a degree — Gagnon said there’s a lot of improvisation on stage.

“We’re not trying to recreate the arrangements on the record,” he said, “but we still approach them like jazz musicians. Everybody is allowed the full range of their artistic expression.”

Gagnon said he was never much of a singer before Small Change. He preferred the intricacies of the guitar and thought that’s where his talent lay. However, he would sing along to Waits CDs during car rides back from late-night gigs. He never thought he’d perform those songs one day, but now, during shows, he likes to recreate Waits’ unique vocals.

“At first it hurt my throat and made me cough,” he said. “But I can relate his singing to my development as a jazz guitarist. That has to do with phrasing and the dynamics of inflection. Notes and chord changes go by quickly. The temptation is to maintain the momentum of a fast bebop piece, but if you can stop and experience the music as a storyteller, you present a totally new character.”

If you go…

What: Small Change, a Tom Waits tribute band

Where: Waterhole, 48 Main St., Saranac Lake

When: 8 p.m. Friday

How much: $10