Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tom Waits in Phoenix 6/18/08

Night two of Tom’s only two-night run in the States opened just like night one, with Lucinda. It’s a song I was sure was just a one-off, at least as the opener, but if it becomes a regular I now see why. It’s got the rocking mid-tempo beat and guitar licks, combined with plenty of opportunity for Tom to ham it up with board-stomps and beat-boxing. Though it’s a bit of an obscure choice to open with, no one but hardcore fans filled the Phoenix seats, so that probably wasn’t the problem it might be elsewhere.

I thought h
e’d definitely keep Hoist That Rag in slot two, but once again he threw me off by moving Way Down in the Hole way up in the setlist. It sounded much fresher here, as Tom could throw his whole energy into it and the audience was still enthusiastic enough to reciprocate. I couldn’t help imagining the “In the hole, in the hole” of Steve Earle’s recent cover version as he sang this though – a back-up part to give the other players?

I mistook the next song for Cold Cold Ground initially, but Fall
ing Down, the first of many new songs for night two, was almost as good. A beautiful flamenco intro by guitarist Omar Torrez led it in that, though it had little to do with the main section itself, was breathtaking enough that it didn’t matter. The talented but shy guitarist of last night shone brighter today, feeling his way into bolder solos and riffs that eluded him before. Not to be outdone, however, Tom played the grizzled thespian acting out the title, leaning over when not singing as if the mic stand was the only thing keeping him from keeling over himself. When he got to the “take off your hat” line, he did just that, holding his bowler over his heart like he was singing the anthem for the upcoming chorus. A perfect place for this song, it helped break up the monotony of the openers last night.

Careening, swooping, a bit headache-inducing on the album, All the World Is Green sounded much more focused live. Gone the swamp and swoon, the production here was stripped back to the basic chords and melody, not creating the Phil Spector-esq soundscape it used to try for. This punchy approach gave the song more force, keeping the audience focused and alert as the verses rolled by.

Tonight featured less audience banter than night one, thanks in part to fewer hecklers, but Tom opened the next song with a extended riff about how it was called Misery and was one of his cheeriest songs. Technically, that would be Misery’s the River of the World, one of the highlights of 2002’s Blood Money and improbably an audience participation song. An audience of people chanting “Everybody row” that is, while Tom sang the title line twenty different ways: the pit-bull preacher, the loony homeless man, the carny ringmaster, the Mickey Mouse nightmare.

The acoustic guitar made a much earlier appearance tonight, and those of us h
oping for a Time reprise were treated to something better: the latter-day masterpiece Day After Tomorrow. I saw Joan Baez do an excellent version a few months ago (read about it here), but Tom gave it the raspy depth than Joan’s warbling soprano could never muster. He started the song, the first of six off 2004's Real Gone, solo on acoustic, but even when the instruments came in his surprisingly adept finger-picking stayed at the fore in verse after heartbreaking verse.

Sins of the Father is a song so long on record I’ve only listened to it a handful
of times and still couldn’t tell you really how it went. Tom had the good sense to strip it back live to only a few minutes, taking a loud rhythm lead on electric guitar as Torrez handled some more risky jump-between-octaves solos.

Torrez then switched to the cigar-box banjo for a reprise of Trampled Rose. Though the instrumentation, banjo combined with Vincent Henry on acoustic guitar, was beautiful, Tom did not seem to be putting as much into it tonight. By the end, the repeated “woah wooaah woah” phrase was just getting tiring.

To pick things back up Tom introduced “a dance tune…sort of” in Metropolitan Glide, another unmemorable song on record made a highlight live. The verses still came and went unnoticeably, but the stop-start of the instrumentals gave every band member a four-bar solo, one after the other. It was so fun one really did feel like dancing as the solo slot jumped from drums to bass to guitar to organ blast to horn, back and forth in the most energetic band performance of the night.

Though a nice song, Dead and Lovely failed to capitalize on the momentum just generated, taking it down for this morbid lullaby. The Real Gone songs, four in a row at this point, were also starting to get tiring.

So luckily Tom took it back twenty years with another Cemetery Polka. Unfortunately, it also seemed to take a step back in quality. The band, having sailed through the song the night before, got so messed up by the abrupt tempo changes tonight that midway through Tom had to stop them and start over. The song lost a little momentum as a result, but was a fun enough clap-along it didn’t particularly matter.

Never played live before, Dirt in the Ground was a "Is he really...?" moment for those paying attention, an underrated gem off Bone Machine that, paired with Misery, showed him in a pretty pessimistic mood. Thanks to Henry's clarinet interacting with Patrick Warren's organ, the ebb and flow surges of the original were well represented in a song that sounded like the stage was breathing.

The fast song, slow song trend continued with Hoist That Rag. One difference tonight though, when Tom’s younger son Sullivan came out to join Casey on percussion duties. Taking up his place behind the bongos, he repeated a simple pattern that almost sounded like a Diddley beat throughout: two hits on the bongos, to hits on the metal sides. It’s a good sound, but you wished he’d done it louder. The song has been taken dow
n several notches in performance energy, and with this and Goin’ Out West slower too, the show does not have the super high-caliber peak it could.

Over to the keys for the piano-bass set, everyone wondered how he would top Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis last night. A Little Rain wasn’t it, but the somber take skipped up and down melodically in a way faithful to the original. Nice enough by itself, but one couldn’t help comparing it to what came in the slot yesterday and feeling disappointed.

With such an engaging sing-along last night, Innocent When You Dream was an obvious choice for a repeat performance, and perhaps a tour staple. However, like Cemetery Polka, it had a hiccup or two. Yesterday Tom made a minor lyric flub when he sang “I gave my love a promise” instead of “a locket.” Nothing major, but he must have been concentrating so hard on not making the mistake again that when he got to the line he choked, losing his place and grinding to a halt. He picked it up again like the professional he is, but the dreamy melody lulls you into a pleasant daze, and such a rude awakening killed the mood a little. The sing-along part was still there though for an appreciative audience.

For the final song of the piano section (one fewer than yesterday, unfortunately), Tom moved over to what looked like a tiny toy organ – perhaps a mellotron – for the only Alice song of the two nights: Lost in the Harbour. The band snuck back on and joined him for this one. Again, a very faithful version, but disappointment couldn’t help but set in that he chose to forgo any of the early 70’s material that we enjoyed two songs of last night.

Back on his stand, Tom made use of new props I hadn’t even realized were there in a percussion-heavy 16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six. Stomping on different parts of the stage produced different-toned thumps, but in particularly he used a kick-drum version of a pot top that he stomped on throughout. Stomped isn’t even strong enough though – he kicked the shit out of that little pot top, so much so he lost his balance and almost toppled the mic stand at one point. A crazy bastard rendition straight out of the insane asylum, its ferocity would have been scary if he wasn’t so obviously having a blast.

A song that didn’t so much for me on night one, Jesus Gonna Be Here made a return appearance. Bluesy as always, forcing the audience to clap along seemed to be the only way to get them engaged in this somewhat generic number. At least it opens up a spot for a killer sax solo from Henry, grooving and so soulful it almost seemed out of place in this dirty blues.

I had not expected a return of November, and certainly not to open the encore, where it frankly seemed out of place. Beautiful though the flamenco rendition was again, it suffered the same fate as Down in the Hole: a first-encore song that worked better early in the set. It’s clearly a slot Tom’s experimenting with, and he need to come out from those stage curtains with a bang, not a whimper.

With such a great prop, it was inevitable that the Eyeball Kid would show his face – well, eye – again. However, tonight Tom didn’t put on the disco-ball hat until halfway through the song. Though this loses much of the on-stage excitement, it made it easier to focus on the music itself in a version I realized is actually quite different from the album version. Drum-based and basic, it drove a lot harder than it did on Mule Variations and is clearly a keeper. Unfortunately, band introductions meant this was the last song, one fewer in the encore than last night, contributing to a 20-song setlist compared to yesterday’s 24. Once again, if he hadn’t set the bar so high no one would be disappointed, but four more songs certainly would have been welcome tonight.

Fabulous though these two shows were, they were clearly warm-up shows for the tour proper as the band felt its way through the material with the occasional stumble and Tom tried to conduct from his stand. Feature guitarist Torrez is clearly coming into his own more, and with the double attack of him and horn player Vincent Henry, in a few shows time this could be a band up there with Tom’s best. With the P of PEHDTSCKJMBA out of the way, it’s on to El Paso.



mich... said...

Hey Ray, this is a fabulous blog, I enjoyed reading the whole thing! the day to day events at bonaroo sounded great...your photos of Bob are freakin' amazing!!!

I can't wait to see Tom in Columbus next weekend.

I've bookmarked this site...I love it!

Andrea said...

I just read through you whole blog, you've seen some great shows!

I think you were a little harsh on your review of Tom's 2nd show in Phoenix. Although it was my first time seeing Tom, I though it was an incredible performance.

Anonymous said...

Great review. It was my first time seeing him, so my opinion is that he did absolutely NOTHING wrong! But actually you're right. When's that download coming!!?!

Will said...

I was excited to see that someone is going to post a download of this show. I was there in the 8th row and would really love to have a copy. I've been keeping my eyes peeled since last Wednesday. So, "Take your time, but hurry up..."

face said...

download please!! i second the motion of poster above me. i was 3rd row, experiencing religious... wish i'd had a recording device...

Gina said...

I forgot how much I love your blog. You are an amazing writer...

Usually I don't do anyone but Bruce but you're tempting me with Tom!!

Thanks for sharing!!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ray - Lovin' the blog.
Are there still plans to upload this show? I'm trying to build an enormous glitter and doom collection, and this one has three songs I haven't dug up yet...