Tom Waits road trip

TOM WAITS
AUGUST 9, 2006
AUDITORIUM THEATRE, CHICAGO

I’m not in the habit of following around musicians or seeing concerts two nights in a row by the same band. But one of my regrets is seeing Tom Waits only once in 1999 – when he played two nights in a row at the Chicago Theatre. I mean, this guy (one of my all-time favorite singer-songwriters) doesn’t come around all that often. The last time he’d performed in Chicago before those shows was 1987. The concert I did see still sticks in my memory as one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, even though I was stuck way up in the nosebleed balcony, peering down at the distant figure of Waits as he pounded his feet on a stomp box.

What a disappointment back in 2003 when Waits never got around to playing any U.S. shows during his tour for Real Gone. So when he announced he was playing a short tour with a peculiar itinerary – Atlanta, Asheville, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, Chicago, Detroit and Akron – I jumped at the chance to see a few of these shows. Chicago, of course, but also Detroit and Akron. Despite some Ticketmaster snafus – and despite the fact that all of these concerts sold out within a few minutes – it wasn’t too hard to get tickets.

I had an excellent seat for the show at Chicago’s gorgeous, old Auditorium Theatre (thanks to the record label publicists), and my anticipation was running high as I waited for Waits. The most noticeable thing about the set-up on the stage was the array of megaphones, horns (bicycle horns?) and a cone-shaped gramophone speaker, neatly stacked in front of a percussion set. I counted eight of these various horns sitting there in the spotlight, enough for an emergency alert or political rally.

The lights went down, and then a very simple but effective bit of lighting created a dramatic, almost surreal entrance for the band. Lights at floor level cast high shadows of the musicians as they walked, one by one, through an opening in the curtain. With all of the musicians onstage except Waits, they began playing the opening chords of “Make It Rain.”

Then, finally, at last, another shadow appeared. A headless figure? A scarecrow? Frankenstein’s monster? There was Tom Waits, with his arms extended out and his hands making claw gestures, looking like tree branches. The applause went manic. And then he lifted his head at last – wearing a hat, of course. And the eerie shadow was complete.


(Photographed in Atlanta)

Waits emerged through the curtain and greeted us all with that same claw, both arms sticking out stiffly. Dressed in gray, except for a little dash of red in the brim of his hat, he looked lean and weathered. Like a character from one of his songs or stories, a guy who used to sleep under the el tracks and hold up liquor stores, a guy who’s found success but still dresses a little like the seedy figure he used to be. How much of Waits’ look – how much of his vocal style, his mannerisms, his jokes, his lyrics, his bizarre musical arrangements – how much of it is an act, a gimmick, shtick? The people who don’t “get” Waits look at it all as some weird act, but even if it is an act, it’s a brilliant one. And underneath all of that, there’s a lot of genius – heartfelt genius.

Even in the flesh and blood, Waits seemed supernatural. Twitchily gesturing, Waits looked as if every hoarse note emerging from his throat required maximum exertion – the cords in his neck and the muscles in his face bulged with strain. And what notes they were. Of course, skeptics will tell you that Waits can’t sing to save his life – or that his gravelly vocals are a gimmick. His singing is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but he once again showed that he’s a master at what he does, barking like a dog with a bad case of the blues and howling high notes like a forlorn feline. I’d forgotten just how physical of a performer Waits is. He really looked like he was giving it his all on the stage at the Auditorium Theatre. I started to worry this guy might collapse from exhaustion if he didn’t take a break.

I noticed at least three distinct vocal styles that Waits used, all three of them rough and bumpy, but each in its own distinct way.

First and foremost was that deep-throated holler, the gospel singer from hell, a little bit of Louis Armstrong and Captain Beefheart. This is the Tom Waits voice that a friend of mine once compared to Scooby-Doo. Ouch. I can see what she meant, but, hey, I love it.

The second voice is actually the more cartoony one – less booming, more constricted, that funny little grouchy voice Waits shifts into, sometimes with sudden and unexpected speed in the middle of a verse. It’s similar to his “talking” voice – assuming that he actually talks in real life the way he talks onstage.

And then there’s the falsetto, Waits’ secret weapon. Despite his reputation for singing deep notes, Waits can hit the high notes, too, with a strangled falsetto that’s as mournful and desperate as anything you’ve ever heard.

I expected to hear a fair amount of music from Waits’ last album, Real Gone, and sure enough, he opened with two of that record’s songs, “Make It Rain” and “Hoist That Rag.” The Auditorium Theatre concert would include six Real Gone tracks in all. It’s not my favorite Waits album by a long shot, though I do like it quite a bit, and the songs sounded strong in concert. For the most part, the live versions did not have as much clatter and noise as the studio recordings, which were based around Waits’ mouth percussion. Waits’ voice sounded powerful on “Make It Rain,” and “Trampled Rose” was magnificent with Waits’ repeating wordless whine blending into the band’s riff.

Stripped down a little bit, the Real Gone songs sounded more like blues songs. And juxtaposed with a few of Waits’ compositions of the 1970s – the period when his musical arrangements were not nearly as weird as those from Swordfishtrombones and later records – the songs didn’t sound all that radically different. Early songs played at this concert included “Till the Money Runs Out” (which began with a bit of Muddy Waters’ “Who’s Been Talking”) and “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard.”

Waits’ band for this tour was good, maybe not quite as exciting as it could have been. His son, Casey, played drums well enough. Longtime Waits sideman Larry Taylor was great on the upright bass. Guitarist Duke Robillard was not as distinctive as, say, Marc Ribot, but his spiky blues solos fit the music well. And Bent Clausen, playing vibes, percussion and banjo, added most of the colors to the musical mix. My only complaint is I could have used a little more of those colors – a few of the unusual instruments that make cameos on Waits’ records. Calliope, anyone?

After “Hoist That Rag,” Waits played the Swordfishtrombones classic “Shore Leave.” The original was largely a spoken-word number, but Waits was really singing those lines with melody this time. The first of several lines at this concert referring to Illinois won applause from the Chicago crowd: “And I wondered how the same moon outside over this Chinatown fair could look down on Illinois and find you there.” The chorus – if you can call it that; it’s only two words, after all – brought out that trademark Waits falsetto.

Next came a couple of songs from Blood Money, “God’s Away on Business,” which had Waits cupping his hands around his mouth for that simulated megaphone sound, and the wistful “All the World Is Green,” in which he seemed to be shaking his entire head to create vibrato.

In between those tunes, he spoke at length for the first time all night, commenting on the disappearance of the Cows on Parade public art project since the last time he’d visited Chicago. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “What happened to the cows? Was there a board meeting I wasn’t informed about? … It’s business, it’s business, I know, but I like the cows.”

After “Falling Down” – a somewhat obscure track from the concert album Big Time – Waits went over to the piano. He played just two songs at the piano this night. I wanted more, but the two that we got were great. Typical of the way he starts off his piano sets, Waits doodled at the keyboard while telling some jokes and stories.

“When I first came to Chicago, I stayed at Belmont and Sheffield – under the el.” He said he stayed at the Wilbrandt Hotel. “The lady behind the counter was the mother of the Marlboro Man.” Waits noted the how disappointed he is when the colorful places he recalls from years ago have become generic and gentrified. “Now you say, ‘9th and Hennepin’ to someone in Minneapolis, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, my wife got some sandals there.’ Sandals? I got shot there.” He reminisced about being caught in “the middle of a pimp war” between 11-year-old pimps – too young to use guns, they threw silverware at each other. “I know it sounds like I made that up, but it’s true.”

And with that, Waits plunked out the discordant chords of “Tango Till They’re Sore,” a lovely example of one of his “grand weepers.”

Before launching into another song, Waits said he’d been told to visit “a little joint on Clark Street” called Wiener Circle. “The great thing about it is you’ll be treated badly.” He said the woman at the hot dog joint called him “dick wad” and “shit bag” on his first visit, but was all nice and sweet when he returned the next day – so he had her fired.

Then came “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” an oldie, from 1976’s Small Change, another classic song, which almost brought tears to my eyes.

The piano was put away (with Waits miming as if he were pushing it), and back to the avant-garde blues. Casey Waits and Clausen grabbed microphones and acted as human beat boxes for “Eyeball Kid” – with Waits holding a big magnifying lens up to his face for part of the song. Waits finally got around to playing guitar for “Way Down in the Hole,” and then on “Don’t Go Into That Barn,” he used a megaphone for the first and only time. The crowd chanted along with the “Yes, sir” line in that song.

“What’s He Building in There” is one song from The Mule Variations that originally struck me as a little too stereotypical of Waits’ macabre spoken-word bits, but it comes alive in concert, with the emphasis changing from the mysterious neighbor to the narrator himself. And this performance of the song ended with a lovely bit of whistling from Waits.

“Murder in the Red Barn” was transformed into a fairly standard-sounding blues song for this tour, a little disappointing though it’s still a fine song. One of Waits’ last songs this night was a new one (slated to come out on the Orphans box set) called “Lie to Me.” It fit in well with theReal Gone tracks.

For his first encore, Waits played acoustic guitar for the first time all night, bringing a gentle touch to “Day After Tomorrow,” a song that closes Real Gone with lyrics about a soldier’s letter home. Applause broke out as Waits sang: “You can’t deny the other side don’t want to die anymore than we do. What I’m trying to say is, don’t they pray to the same god that we do? And tell me, how does God choose? Whose prayers does he refuse?”

Waits came back for one more encore, closing with the wistful “Time” on acoustic guitar. I was really, really glad to hear that one. It’s one of the songs that first got me interested in Waits, back when Rain Dogs was a new album. And then, even though the crowd made an unholy racket of clapping and foot stomping, Waits was really gone.

TOM WAITS
AUGUST 11, 2006
DETROIT OPERA HOUSE

It just seemed like a bus would be the appropriate mode of transportation for following Tom Waits was, so I booked trips to Detroit, Cleveland and Akron via Megabus and Greyhound, arriving in the Motor City without incident. Boy, downtown Detroit is really pretty quiet on a Friday afternoon. The only streets with any noticeable traffic were in front of the casino. Anyway, the Detroit Opera House was another lovely venue for Waits, with a similar grandeur to the Auditorium in Chicago where he’d played two nights earlier.

Was it worth seeing him again? Definitely. He played nine songs in Detroit that he hadn’t touched in Chicago. The crowd was even more boisterous, and there was more banter from Waits. When a few people were insistent about yelling out song requests, Waits told them to write down their measurements and hand them to the ushers. “I’m having hard-shell cases made, for each one of you,” he said. In response to one of the requests (I didn’t catch the song title), Waits demurred, saying “No, that’s old shit,” then noted that some old songs hold up well and others don’t.

For his piano interlude, he played “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” (when he started playing one of the verses he’d already done, he remarked, “We’ve already been through this material”), “Invitation to the Blues” and “House Where Nobody Lives.”

Waits made some surprising song choices, including “Lost at the Bottom of the World” and “It Rains on Me.” Though the latter song is hardly a familiar one, Waits got the crowd singing along with its chorus. At another point, he urged the crowd to stop clapping along to a song, since people weren’t really clapping to the beat.

He stopped the show with a true show-stopper, the Bone Machine track “Goin’ Out West,” with its boastful chorus: “I look good without a shirt on!”

TOM WAITS
AUGUST 13, 2006
AKRON CIVIC THEATRE

The Akron Civic Theatre looks like a small-town movie theater from the street, but looks are deceiving. That’s just the façade for the long entrance, which leads back to a beautiful and fairly large auditorium set back from the street. It’s ornate to the extreme, a little reminiscent of Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, though it has considerably more glitter. “Before it was a theater, it was a barbershop,” Waits said.

Waits’ set list at this concert was a combination of his repertoire from the last two concerts I’d seen, with just one new addition, “Clap Hands.”

He said he’d visited the Goodyear blimp factory because blimps had always appeared in the sky during major moments of his life. “The first time I robbed a gas station, a blimp went by. The first time I killed an endangered species, a blimp went by.” And he said he was staying at the Taft Hotel. He recommended staying at hotels named after presidents – but not at hotels named “Hotel President.” (Actually, I wonder if Waits was really staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland, since I happened to see Robillard walking into that hotel the night before.)

Waits told the story again about Wiener Circle, saying it was a restaurant at the last city where he’d been (actually, it was a couple of cities ago).

Although the stage had the same stack of megaphones, Waits never used them in Detroit or Akron.

Although Waits had scheduled another late-night concert the same night at the House of Blues in Cleveland (which I did not get a ticket for), he did not especially seem to be in a hurry to leave Akron, playing a concert of the same length as the Chicago and Detroit shows.

As I had suspected, the House of Blues show that I missed turned out to be the slightly more unusual one of the night, including 11 songs that I hadn’t heard in the previous three concerts. But I’m happy to report that I witnessed three excellent performances by this musical legend.

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What, you’re probably asking, no photos from the Tom Waits concerts? Sorry, photography was not allowed at the three Waits concerts I saw, and rather than dealing with the hassle of trying to get a photo pass I decided to focus on the musical experience. The photos I have posted here are what I was able to find from other photographers at www.flickr.com. And that image at left is by Jesse Dylan from the sheet music book for Blood Money.

CHICAGO SET LIST
Make It Rain
Hoist That Rag
Shore Leave
God’s Away On Business
All the World Is Green
Falling Down
Tango Till They’re Sore
Tom Traubert’s Blues
Eyeball Kid
Down in the Hole
Don’t Go Into That Barn
Shake It
Trampled Rose
What’s He Building in There
Who’s Been Talking / Till The Money Runs Out
Murder in the Red Barn
Lie to Me
Get Behind the Mule
ENCORE 1
Day After Tomorrow
Singapore
ENCORE 2
Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard
Time

 

DETROIT SET LIST
Make It Rain
God’s Away on Business
Shore Leave
Way Down in the Hole
Dead and Lovely
Falling Down
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis
Invitation to the Blues
House Where Nobody Lives
Eyeball Kid
Who’s Been Talking/’Till The Money Runs Out
Circus
Trampled Rose
Lost at the Bottom of the World
Sins of the Father
Shake It
ENCORE 1 
Murder in the Red Barn
Get Behind the Mule
It Rains on Me
ENCORE 2
Day After Tomorrow
Goin’ Out West

 

AKRON SET LIST
Make It Rain
Hoist That Rag
Shore Leave
Dead and Lovely
God’s Away on Business
Falling Down
Tango Til They’re Sore
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis
Tom Traubert’s Blues
Til the Money Runs Out
Whats He Building in There
Eyeball Kid
Murder in the Red Barn
Trampled Rose
Lost at the Bottom of the World
Who’s Been Talking/’Till The Money Runs Out
Shake It
ENCORE 1
Day After Tomorrow
Lie To Me
Get Behind The Mule
ENCORE 2
Clap Hands
Sins Of The Father / Wade in the Water

 

CLEVELAND SET LIST
(according tohttp://eyeballkid.blogspot.com/)
Goin’ Out West
219 (My Baby’s Leaving on the)
Way Down in the Hole
November
\Blue Valentine
Big Black Mariah
On the Nickel
Cemetery Polka
\I Wish I Was in New Orleans
Johnsburg, Illinois
Metropolitan Glide
Heartattack and Vine / Spoonful
Make it Rain
Circus
Singapore
It Rains on Me
ENCORE 1 
Don’t Go Into that Barn
Ramblin’ Man
ENCORE 2 
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Buzz Fledderjohn