Tom Waits – Beacon Theatre (New York City, NY)
We are waiting.
The light…cuts through the darkened hall, twists, turns…searching for something. It swoops to the rear door, finds its spot. Into the light slides the 13-years-absent Mr. Waits, entourage behind him, pushing up the aisle now, toward the stage, bullhorn in hand, bantamweight champion of the world, on his way to the center ring, here to defend his title.
Step Right Up! It’s the Black Rider, through the Swordfishtrombones vocal Vegematic — but with a banjo…and loud. He reaches into his pocket, not for the last time, comes up with a handful of green, red and gold glitter, and flicks it over himself. Over a few audience members on the aisle. It picks up the light in little floating flecks. Magic dust. He’s the Ringmaster in his own circus tonight, and he’ll be all the acts. Step Right Up! Now he’s gesturing on a riser at center stage, kicking up mounds of gray chalk, which hovers over the stage like groundfog. Dark dust.
The performer Tom Waits has returned to New York, and you quickly get the picture: If you haven’t seen him, you haven’t heard him. The clues to the mysteries are in the visuals now. Few have had the chance. Until this year, the new music, outside of the soundtracks and stage show scores, has been sparse. The appearances have been acting appearances, onscreen, onstage. Now the character himself is back in action, returning as a force he might never have imagined, cutting across generations and genres.
First thing you notice is that he’s become a kind of dancer. One moment he stalks before his accomplished band like a scarecrow, arms dangling from the shoulders, a ratcheting shadow puppet. The songs will match the stance in sound — “16 Shells”, “Mr. Siegal”, “Downtown”. (There will be a lot of Heartattack And Vine tonight.) Waits is small, crumpled as you expect, a back-alley vagabond.
Then he suddenly stands twice as tall, imposing, guitar poised in hand, singing out like Woody Guthrie astride a hill, offering up “Hold On” or “Jersey Girl”. This guy does more with a change in posture than many do with a change in labels.
Yes, he’ll give the New Yorkers “Jersey Girl” and other local numbers born here, pieced together from local experience, songs that were among the strongest he’s ever pulled off — but on this night they won’t get (because they ask!) “Downtown Train”, one of the great New York songs ever. The song lineup is changing every night, and he’s doing four shows here.
Waits goes on to perform solo with that guitar, return to boozy piano man cabaret, offer up a few lounge numbers that smack of Sinatra, and deliver raucous rock backed by jack-of-all-strings Smokey Hormel, percussionist Andrew Borger, Danny McGough on keyboards and Larry Taylor on bass.
But the overriding, overwhelming sound, Waits’ mainstay for this tour, is a sort of jazz/gospel revival hour. Exactly what, he makes you to start to wonder, is being revived? Or as he might put it (in what will become a hilarious encore set piece), what is he building in there?
This music is built on every thread of Americana imaginable: carnival barker spiels, minstrel show parry and thrust (he’s Bones and Interlocutor both), the blues, very much (but subtly) country music, bandshell standards, Tin Pan Alley show tunes, electro-pomo Beefheart, the ghost of Louis Armstrong, even the imaginary Southern Amerika of Brecht & Weill’s “Mahoganny” and “Happy End” with a dollop of Marelene Dietrich soundtrack. He keeps all these elements spinning like plates on sticks, and it’s an impressive piece of magic. Asked what this all adds up to, he’s responded, “Variety!”
Where, we might ask, is the country? Waits has been explicit about the roots-based influences in his music — the Red Sovine recitations, the traditional ballads, the Harry Smith Anthology influence, digested early when he was a folk club doorman. But Waits’ interest is on the new weird America. No one could claim he sounds like country now, alt. or otherwise — but he’s done the unpredictable thing with his recent numbers and kept strong elements of country lyricism, if not so much the sound.
He offers the crowd “The House Where Nobody Lives” from Mule Variations acoustic, at the piano, and somebody ought to record an outright country arrangement of this one as soon as possible. It’s easy to forget that his new compositions are not “singer-songwriter” stuff; they’re mostly collaborations with wife Kathleen Brennan, and the more theatrical they are, the more she appears to have had a key hand in the proceedings. So it’s at least provocative that the most country-like lyrics of the 1999 vintage material (“The House Where Nobody Lives” and “Pony”, for instance) are authored by Waits alone.
Centerpoint in this performance is the new piece “Eyeball Kid”, taking off from a harsh place into blazing instrumental solos as Waits bangs a hanging iron ring at center stage with a rhythmic clang. He dons a piece of headgear designed for the likes of this theater, his own mirror ball hat. Now the light strikes this hat of his and splits in a dozen directions. And he’s been practicing! Ducking and bobbing as the backup band takes their instrumental solos, he directs the shattered beams of light to the wall, to the roof, to the eyes of the audience, like his songs. One beam ducks out a side door to catch a drink in the lobby.
Waits says he left New York because its in-your-face, piecemeal parade of experiences had gotten to be too much. And for someone who notices, digests and records them all, maybe it was. But he had friends and co-conjurers here, a scene that had incorporated eccentric performers from Brother Theodore to Monty Rock/Disco Tex, to John Lurie, to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, to filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who cast him in Down By Law and took him directly to New Orleans, that other town with different sounds and tastes in every doorway.
So in a real sense, Tom Waits came home in September 1999, came home bearing gifts. He showed even this potentially jaded crowd where to look between the bullhorns and the banjos, the mules that kick you upside the head and the mules that clip-clop toward Jerusalem, between the glitter and the dust, the darkness and the revival. He reconciled them. And he moved toward a conclusion…
And now, ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages…for his final feat…the Great Tomasso will push all irony aside off a 50-foot tower into the disconnected twist-cap from a finished bottle of Ripple. The light…focuses in tight and pale around a saloon singer at the piano. Just as he did 25 years ago, opening one night before Maria Muldaur and the Benny Carter Big Band. (Another mini-swing revival was on.)
He sings low, and soft, and sincere as country. All irony has been retired for the evening. Fingers tiptoe down the keys to the heart of Saturday night. And that famously hard New York audience starts to sing. First quietly, then louder, they sing along. First sitting, then standing, they sing along. The revival meeting is not so dark now. The song is “Innocent When You Dream”. It can’t be broken to pieces.
It’s his last and greatest trick. Like a great country singer. No trick at all.