Tom Waits in St. Louis

Tom Waits is on tour, but he ain’t coming to Chicago (at least for the time being) so it was time for me to take another Waits road trip, this time to the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. What a show it was last night (June 26) – maybe the best of the five Waits concerts I’ve seen, with the possible exception of the first Chicago Theatre show he did back on the Mule Variations tour. On his 2006 tour, Waits focused more on his bluesy side. For this new tour, dubbed “Glitter and Doom,” the sound is more diverse, more subterranean, more colorful, with more horns and keyboards, classical guitar flourishes and klezmer-style wind solos.

Waits danced like a marionette last night, allowing some invisible strings to jerk his body to the rhythms of the band. This guy has always been a great actor (whether he’s acting on the screen or through his music), and last night he seemed almost like a silent film star. Those were some Chaplin moves he was trying out.

One of the things that made the concert exceptional were the moments when Waits stretched out the end of tunes, lifting his voice into that hoarse but heartbreaking falsetto of his. Of course, not everyone appreciates the way Waits sings, but it is truly something to behold, and last night he brought together an outlandish sense of showmanship with a tangible feeling of human frailty. Yeah, that is one oddball character up there on that stage putting on a spectacle for us, but listen to that voice and see the way he strains to hit the notes – and then just does. I felt like Waits was letting his mask slip just a little bit – especially when he sat down at the piano and did one of my all-time favorites, “Johnsburg, Illinois.” First, he ran through the whole song (it’s a short one) as an instrumental, then he sang it, seeming to have a little landing his voice on the right pitches. It was an imperfect performance, but imperfect in just the right way, if that makes any sense.

The Fox is an amazingly beautiful venue, some madman’s idea of Ali Baba’s palace, with ornate quasi-Arabic decor – a perfect setting for a Waits concert. And the warbly gramophone recordings of Caruso that played over the speakers as the audience filled in set the mood. (Waits said something about having a dream about Caruso.) One flaw in the show was the acoustics. Those vocals needed to be just a bit louder in the mix. It wasn’t bad enough to rate as a problem, but when Waits faced the usual barrage of audience shouts, it became a struggle to make out what he was saying. His banter last night included a humorous list of ridiculous laws that are supposedly on the books in Oklahoma, where he’d just played a concert. He added that it’s against the law to open a soda bottle in St. Louis unless you’re in the presence of an engineer. Or something like that.

Waits played an outstanding selection of songs last night. I never thought I’d hear him do his twisted version of the Disney classic “Heigh Ho (The Dwarfs Marching Song).” Another out-of-left-field choice that I enjoyed was “On the Other Side of the World,” a lovely ballad from his overlooked soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film Night on Earth. And I finally got the chance to hear him do at least one song from Alice,, which is one of my favorite Waits records. (Does he have something against it? He rarely seems to do that material.) After playing three songs on piano in the middle of the show (standard practice for Waits), he moved over to some sort of harmonium and played the Alice song “Lost in the Harbour,” the band joining him midway through the tune.

And there was lots from Rain Dogs, another favorite album, including a piano version of “Hang Down Your Head,” which is normally a guitar song. Waits acted like a conductor (a slightly drunken conductor, perhaps) during “Cemetery Polka” and “Singapore,” and the band responded nimbly to every one of his cues. For the final song of the night, Waits played the sentimental “Innocent When You Dream,” and with his encouragement, the audience sang along to the last chorus, like a choir at some mad church.

Way Down in the Hole
Falling Down
Black Market Baby
All the World Is Green
Heigh Ho (The Dwarfs Marching Song)
Get Behind the Mule
The Day After Tomorrow
Cemetery Polka
Hang Down Your Head (piano)
Lucky Day (piano)
Johnsburg, Illinois (piano)
Lost in the Harbour
Make It Rain
Lie to Me
On the Other Side of the World
Dirt in the Ground
What’s He Building?
16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six
Rain Dogs
Goin’ Out West
Anywhere I Lay My Head
Innocent When You Dream (piano)

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