Regular readers will notice that Phoenix is far out of the scope of my normal concert activities. But Tom Waits is not your average concert performer, so when he announced a rare tour that only hit the South and Southwest, those of us up North had to scramble for new arrangements. Phoenix was the only city with two shows, so here I am.
Walking into the Orpheum Theater, the excitement level for this opening date on the tour was enormous. An old movie theater, it only seats 1300, so tickets for both shows were gone in seconds. Those of us lucky to snag some came out in full Tom Waits attire; a good half the people there were wearing porkpie hats – which, incidentally, Tom no longer wears – and various other rolled-straight-out-the-bar ensembles. The theater itself added to the ambiance, a gorgeous place with the ceiling painted like the sky and the walls painted like mountains. Like you’re seeing Tom Waits somewhere in the Alps, instead of 113-degree Arizona. Another unusual aspect of this show – well, unusual for a Waits show – was the bounty of merchandise. In addition to t-shirts that featured an oil stain he’d photographed, there were also little bound booklets of True Confessions: Tom Waits Interviewing Tom Waits. It’s worth a read, and you can check it out here.
The stage had one of the most unique set-ups I’d ever seen, spots for the guitarist, bassist, horn player, keyboards, and drummer all crammed together with little room to breath. Taking up the extra space both in the back and overhead was a miscellany of large megaphones, giving it a junkyard vibe reminiscent of Rent. Even that wasn’t a consistent theme though, as in the back near the floor there were also three large orange squares and a triangle that occasionally during the show would provide the only lighting. Tom Waits’ space had a variety of instruments, some played (guitar, maracas), more not (gong, bass drum). Maybe he’ll use more tomorrow night. Over the PA the Anthology of American Folk Music provided the pre-show soundtrack, a perfect lead-in for an artist who has taken much of this early folk and turned it inside out, upside down, and back to front.
Now onto the show itself. Take a seat, pull up a lemonade, and get ready for some reading. The band came out about half an hour late to wild applause and began setting up in the dark before a familiar bowler-hatted silhouette came out and took his place on a small platform center stage. A few blurry lights rose on him doing his deranged scarecrow pose, leaning over with arms and quadruple-jointed fingers spread wide. The band then went into the song Tom most recently performed publicly, Lucinda. It featured the same medley seen on the Conan O’Brien show last year (watch it) with Leadbelly’s Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well. Standing instrument-less as he would for much of the show, Tom creaked and gyrated around, stomping the floor to the beats where a white powder lay, each stomp throwing up a cloud of smoke. I saw Jack White do the same trick at a recent White Stripes show, and it’s a good one. The song was loud and aggressive, featuring many Tom Waits staples like unique characters (William the Pleaser) and time breakdowns (“I’m a true believaaaaaah”). A perfect start.
Next up a recent live favorite among fans, Hoist That Rag off of 2004’s Real Gone. Tom led it in with some hard-shook maracas, and it was the first show spot for new guitarist Omar Torrez. His off-beat solos and wildly unpredictable runs recalled old sideman Marc Ribot in the best way possible, but he seemed a little nervous, missing the occasional note or goofing a chord. Once the first-night jitters subside he should really shine. Tom’s son Casey Waits on drums is another that could use some work. Whether Tom’s decision are his own, the drum pounding on songs like this and Goin’ Out West was too subdued to give them all the punch they need.
The first gospel number of the night, Come On Up to the House was an unexpected treat. Tom played with the phrasing throughout, often just repeating “come on up” and ignoring the “to the house” part. The verses cycled around each other, the simple melody never getting tiring in Tom’s mad dog bark that channeled a loony street-corner preacher.
“I feel as though we should move right in to the religious material,” Tom once said in his 1987 movie Big Time and he seemed to keep that same thematic approach, following Come On Up with Jesus Gonna Be Here. He started it off a cappella, crooning the warbly tune out at his own pace before guiding the band in for the second verse. The first audience participation of the night, Tom also led a clap-along throughout, trying to coax the audience into starting and stopping at the right times. It kept the whole thing far more lively than it would have been otherwise, complete with horn man Vincent Henry playing two saxes at one – an impressive feat by itself, before a funky solo that designated him most fun musician in the band.
After a pretty high-energy opening set, cooling things down with a slow take on The Black Rider’s November was a welcome relief, especially preceded as it was with anecdotes of several unique laws (apparently no kiss in Phoenix can last longer than three minutes) and some banter shutting up hecklers (in response to a shout of “You look good, Tom”: “You look good too…in the dark.”) The song was beautiful, Torrez adding flamenco guitar lines throughout as Tom stopped barking for a minute and really sang the beautiful ode to a month “much cooler than this one”.
Another off of Mule Variations, Black Market Baby is somewhat unmemorable on record, but enjoyed an energy boost live. Watching the man bark and busk like a crazy carnie, you realized how well the line “a diamond who wants to stay coal” could apply to Waits himself.
The first pre-90’s song of the night, Rain Dogs gave the audience an unexpected treat and Tom yelped and stomped his way through the crazy rhythm shifts while the band did their damndest to keep up. Songs like this illustrated the only small problem of the set, which was typical opening night sloppiness. Tom constantly had to give the band their cues and keep them focused as they were not yet as cohesive a unit as they will surely become, though Henry’s Eastern-influences tenor sax lines in the background of this one would have been worth listening to by themselves.
A song I just saw performed on Sunday by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (read about it here), Trampled Rose was given a very different treatment by its creator. No beautiful harmonies or warbling falsetto on this version, Tom messed around with the tune and rhythm of the lyrics enough that you had to pay attention to even recognize it. Beauty and the beast in the two different renditions, but both interesting takes.
For the first time of the night, Tom picked up the guitar to duet with Torrez on the familiar opening riff to Goin’ Out West. When it stopped and those furious drum pounds should have come in though, we got only light drum taps. The song as a whole was performed in a more stripped-down version that, while interesting, lost something of the high-octane power in the original. It's easily Tom’s most badass song, and becomes less distinctive when not performed that way. It was picked up, however, by Tom being his own back-up singer at the end of each verse echoing “He looks good without a shirt.”
The most drastically reworked song of the set, Murder in the Red Barn got off to a shaky start. Halfway through the first verse, Tom stopped and said “Woah woah, this is too fast, slow it down band” before counting in a slower tempo and starting again. It was worth the delay though, as the former blues stomp got a slow jazzy treatment helped once again by Omar’s acoustic. The original always got on my nerves a bit, but slowing everything down brought out the tension in the lyrics in a new way, leaving the audience pin-drop silent as they listened. This reinterpretation could well become a live staple, and it deserves it.
Anywhere I Lay My Head has gotten new notice as the title of Scarlett Johanson’s abysmal cover album, but thankful Tom ignored her “creative liscence” arrangement and kept to his own. It was short and sweet, leaving out the instrumental coda and some of the verses, clocking in at barely two minutes. Whether an intentional choice, or a response to the audience’s desire to clap-along arrythmically is unclear, but it seemed over before it begun.
Cemetery Polka, on the other hand, is meant to knock you over fast and hard. Tom went right into the tale “about a family reunion” with not a note wasted. The songs switched tempos back and forth between the verses and brief solo lines in a way perfectly jarring for the number.
In a set of one dynamically-performed song after another, there was only one low point: Get Behind the Mule. It’s a generic blues-rocker about three times longer than necessary, and live with Tom on guitar again it just never seemed to end. The audience shifted around bored as one chorus led into the next over bland instrumentals. Only horn player Vincent Henry’s harmonica riffs and solo added anything to focus on in this mule-paced snoozer. Omar Torrez’s cigar-box banjo, cool though it was, was too low in the mix to make out.
For the only time in the set, Tom changed hats for the next song. Now this sounds like a small detail until you know what hat he changed into. A bowler covered with small mirrors, Tom became a human disco ball as he spun around and around under the spotlights during Eyeball Kid, rays of light shooting in all directions from his hat. The perfect song for such an offbeat prop, it displayed Tom at his showman best, looking like the Kid himself with a giant all-seeing eye on his head. With a prop that well-suited, I imagine this song will make quite a few appearances this summer.
As the band left the stage, I must not have been the only one worried the main set was over. I needn't have. A huge cheer erupted as Tom moved to the piano, his trademark instrument, for a mini-set accompanied by bassist Seth Ford-Young, an unannounced substitute for his longstanding companion Larry “The Mole” Taylor. Ford-Young proved quite adept however, adding jazzy counter-melodies to every song on which he could be heard and accompanied the first song here, Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis, quite tenderly. The first of only a couple of his early tunes played tonight, it was one of the most moving moments of the evening, sounding just like it did in the 70’s and making me nostalgic for a time I wasn’t around for in the first place. He had the wisdom not to mess with these lyrics a bit, and took more care in the singing then we saw all night.
The piano set continued with a more recent track, Picture in a Frame, a pretty little song performed well, but nothing revelatory. A security guy in the front row had on a loud walkie talkie the whole time however, and afterwards when the guy didn’t take a hint from Tom’s jokes about “Is that a truck passing outside? A CB radio?” he tried a more direct approach: “Turn that damn walkie-talkie off!” The audience, having been looking around and muttering the past few songs about it, cheered the admonishment.
In a song I hadn’t bothered even hoping I’d hear live, i was incredibly excited to hear him start "She's up against the register" for Invitation the Blues. A beautiful tale of loss and loneliness, Tom unfortunately cut out several verses, just trying to get through it. It ended up not approaching the majesty of the 70’s versions, seeming somewhat perfunctory, but a good enough song that the audience appreciated its inclusion nevertheless.
The last song of this piano set was another high point, his classic Innocent When You Dream. After going through a lullaby rendition featuring Ford-Smith’s smooth jazz bass work, Tom acknowledged an audience itching to sing along with him, going through the chorus several more times with audience participation, trading off lines with us again and again. The audience did a damn good job too, not overpowering the song, but serving as Tom’s backing chorus. As it progressed, the rest of the band came back out and added themselves into the tune while Tom did a bit of falsetto jazz scatting.
Back to the guitar for Lie To Me, Tom used the stop-start arrangement seen in recent live performances, repeating verses and choruses of a song generic but lively. This version gained an added boost when as Tom elongated the stops with a long falsetto whine you had trouble believing was even him turning into a descending bass line back in. Proof that arrangement can make up for a lot.
A setlist change or addition, Tom called out Chocolate Jesus to his band members and sound guy, cuing a bare light bulb to descend from the ceiling. The bulb was only on for ten seconds or so before a pop and burst of smoke exploded from the wiring above, so the effect wound up underused. Tom shouting this song through a bullhorn, however, achieved the desired effect of distorting the vocals and tune, coming as close to the advertising barker of Step Right Up or Lucky Day Overture as we saw this evening.
A recent live staple, Make It Rain is worth the repeat performances, Tom’s off-beat shouts channeled a voodoo shaman while Omar’s strange solos switched from Clapton to Beefheart with impressive fluidity. Halfway through Tom took the time to introduce the band, meaning the main set was over.
The first song of the encore has enjoyed rejuvenated popularity as the theme song for television drama The Wire in various cover versions, but Tom proved why his Way Down in the Hole was still the best. Who knew Hell could sound so pleasing, with another killer sax solo?
The next opening riff sounded like a reprise of Cemetery Polka, but it turned out to be the recent classic God’s Away on Business. If God's away and you gotta keep the devil in the hole, sounds like Tom's not much for any non-human creatures around. Torrez on acoustic guitar seemed a strange choice for such a loud song, but it allowed keyboard player Patrick Warren to be heard for one of the first times of the show. The levels overall could have used a bit of work, as Torrez’s solos throughout were quieter than need be.
A rare gem saved for last, the accordion-led Time sent shivers the down the audience’s collective spine in a sensitive and careful rendition, oozing with emotion in the build-up to and release of the chorus. The perfect ending song, it seemed to sum up the emotions of the entire night, dreary and mournful but with the prospect of hope ahead. On acoustic guitar for the only time of the evening, Tom quiet plucking added the rhythm needed to propel the song as Casey left the stage. The last note echoed through the audience before anyone moved, roaring into a standing ovation as Tom took a quick bow and scurried off into the night.