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Older but Wilder

The grayer Tom Waits grows the better he gets.

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Tom Waits

Auditorium Theatre, 8/9

I don't know if I'd have fallen for Tom Waits if I'd discovered him before Swordfishtrombones, when he more or less permanently stranged up his sound. I came in on his next record, 1985's Rain Dogs, and once I got acclimated to his guttural voice and junkyard rhythms I realized I'd been handed not just a desert-island disc par excellence but a lifetime supply of bohemian epigrams--lots of Waits's lyrics read like they ought to be engraved on a locket or a tombstone.

Later, when I listened back to Waits's earlier albums, I realized that this genius had been there all along. In the 70s he created a downright gravitational pull with the length of his lines, the daring verbosity of his stream-of-consciousness beatnik aesthetic--he'd follow a tangent through dark alleys and sewer tunnels and eventually, if it dared to surface, jump into a taxi and yell, "Follow that fancy!" His approach felt rooted in jazz poetry--imagine Jack Kerouac as a nerd or Ken Nordine as a rock star--and you could admire him as a writer even if you didn't cotton to the blowsy cabaret tunes he was playing in those days. But in the early 80s he began a journey he still hasn't finished, moving from bittersweet and rambly ("Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis") to hyperalert and twitchy ("Gun Street Girl") and from there to parts unknown. His talent for arranging sounds--for pruning the hairy hedges of his music into dancing topiary beasts--had finally caught up with his talent for arranging words.

What resulted, among many other things, was a sort of ritualized literary scat singing, an idiom native to the sort of philosopher who wakes up drunk in boxcars and is just as likely to buttonhole you about James Joyce's plagiarism as ask you for money. It's like jawboning with Steinbeck's dust-bowl down-and-outers, provided they've joined a circus instead of setting out for California--or like listening to one of your grandpa's war stories, provided he went AWOL for a spell to live in the jungle with cannibals. But Waits is not to be mistaken for one of his characters--as profoundly, eloquently undisciplined as most of them are, their creator is in total control, and in concert he rules the stage like a shaman with the power to call down lightning on any member of the tribe who walks counterclockwise at the wrong time.

I'd hesitate to imply that Waits tours so infrequently because he knows that means we'll be eating out of his hand when he does come around--but only the direst of pessimists would expect the same crowd that snapped up all the seats in the Auditorium Theatre in minutes to give him anything but lots of love. The stage setup was modest, which is definitely the way to go when you know you don't have to win anybody over with spectacle. There was tasteful lighting, a few loose drums and speaker horns piled up as decor, and a simple backlit white drape--which made for striking entrances, with each musician's silhouette leaping up ballooned out and huge and then shrinking rapidly toward the parting in the curtain where he'd walk through. At the first sight of Waits's shadow--narrow-brimmed hat, too-small jacket, arms crooked like the branches of a sinister tree--the congregants rose to their feet, cheering with an intensity they'd maintain throughout the two-hour set (and redouble for the two encores).

Waits began with "Make It Rain" and then segued into "Hoist That Rag," both from 2004's Real Gone and both in the jerky, percussive, Howlin' Wolf-turned-inside-out style he relies on for the high-energy portions of his sets. Such is Waits's refinement of his strange craft that these bone-rattling space blues occupy the same indeterminate zone of the heart as his romantic, melancholy ballads, suspended between hope and horror like Schrodinger's cat. Over the course of the show his multidimensional voice wrapped itself around the blackly funny spit-on-the-world declamations of "God's Away on Business," the wistful quotes from "Waltzing Matilda" in the gorgeous "Tom Traubert's Blues," and the maniacally methodical one-man play "What's He Building?"--whose surveillance-mad hate-thy-neighbor paranoia sounds less like a parody every day.

Waits is one of very few artists to sound more like a wild man in his 50s than in his 20s. His charisma's off the scale, and so is his command of his voice--there are bits on the records where I've always thought he used a megaphone or effects rack, but onstage he duplicated most of them au naturel, whistling, growling, cupping his hands around the mike, even doing some blown-out beatboxing. (His son Casey did a bit of that on one song too, as well as playing drums for the whole set.) Some of Waits's drunken-marionette dance moves and theatrical kung fu chops doubled as signals to the band; others made him look like he was generating its death rattles with his body and the musicians were just there for show.

Not that the band was slacking. Guitarist Duke Robillard, who founded Roomful of Blues in 1967, is no Marc Ribot, but his solos were biting and nimble. I only missed Ribot's ingenuity on tunes like "Murder in the Red Barn," which had been transformed from a hysterical rural-gothic murder ballad into a slinky slow blues--the new arrangement better suited this lineup's style, but the most frightening thing about it was Waits's lyrics ("There's nothin' strange about an ax with bloodstains in the barn / There's always some killin' you got to do around the farm"). Thankfully Bent Clausen, who played on Waits's 2002 albums Alice and Blood Money, was working overtime to keep the perversity in the songs, jumping from vibes to keyboards to percussion to banjo.

I could really only make a couple other complaints--I would've liked to hear more than just two songs ("Tango Till They're Sore" and "Tom Traubert's Blues") in Waits's bantery solo-piano style, and I wanted more of his monologues. Not that he didn't talk to us--he told a story about Wieners Circle on Clark Street, complained that the decrepit hotel at Belmont and Sheffield where he'd stayed decades ago had been gentrified out of existence, and described a gangland battle between two 11-year-old pimps who weren't big enough to handle guns. ("They threw silverware at each other," he said. "I know it sounds like I made that up, but I didn't.") I'm surprised Waits didn't take advantage of every opportunity to sit down--he'd soaked his suit jacket through with sweat by midset. But then we're talking about the same guy who once told Thrasher magazine, "I like to play the drums until my knuckles bleed, until I pee my pants."

The vibe in the theater was warm and plenty communal, and though for most of the set only a brave few dared sing along, when it was clearly appropriate to chime in, everybody was ready--we filled in every "yes sir" and "no sir" that Waits left unsaid in the call-and-response outro to "Don't Go Into That Barn." (Does anything good ever happen in a barn in a Tom Waits song?) He opened the first encore with "Day After Tomorrow," a reflective and sorrowful letter home from a soldier in the field, and folks were respectfully restrained when the lyrics mentioned Illinois--they saved their whoops for the song's philosophical punch line: "You can't deny / The other side / Don't want to die any more than we do / What I'm trying to say / Is don't they pray / To the same God that we do?" Then Waits played "Singapore," the mesmerizing sea chantey that opens Rain Dogs, and the cathartic clapping and stomping in the crowd reached a level that reminded me of a Laibach show I saw 15 years ago.

The last song Waits played that night, "Time," is so beautiful it hurts, the sort of tune that makes screaming fanboys fall silent and rock critics cry. He's earned that sort of power with decades of investment and repeated leaps of faith. By now his cussed elusiveness and practically nonexistent touring schedule have made him more than a little mythical as a live performer, but this isn't a case of simple scarcity artificially inflating value. When Waits comes around again in a decade (or however long), it'll be like getting one more chance to glimpse a unicorn--the scruffy kind you can only see if you can prove you're not a virgin.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.

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