Greetings from the drizzly grey skies of Dublin, Ireland, where last night I saw the greatest Tom Waits show I’ve ever seen, hands down, holy shit, it was INCREDIBLE.
We actually saw Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen on the street in downtown Dublin yesterday, before the show, coming out of the Georges Arcade. Said hi, kept walking. Running into them on the street isn’t such a rare thing back home in California, but it is a truly surreal thing on the other side of the world.
You want surreal? How about a six-tiered circus tent in the middle of a park? ‘Cause that’s where Waits played last night. Christened “The Ratcellar,” it was every bit the Barnum & Bailey spectacle you’d think: purple and yellow stripes, a grand marqueed entrance, red velvet curtains, raked seating on all sides. Built just for these shows, Waits booked three nights here, under the big top.
Tom Waits must really love Dublin. The strolling around town, the building of a special tent, the three-night stand—and undoubtedly one of the greatest shows he’s ever performed. Two and a half hours, 26 songs—the set list, below, was unbelievable—and most of the time, he made the enormous tent of 3,000 feel like an intimate parlor. He certainly seemed honored, and more than a little grateful, to be in Dublin.
Tickets to the show were 138 Euro—about $215 each (the highest price I’ve ever paid for tickets). There was a lot of grumbling about this in Dublin. After the show last night, I can’t imagine anyone grumbling about it anymore.
Waits came out to thunderous applause, threw himself and his band into “Lucinda,” and we were off and running. “Raindogs” was a good sign right afterwards, and it soon became apparent that the set had changed drastically from the time I saw him last month in Phoenix: “The Other Side of the World,” from the film Night on Earth, with an excellent flamenco-guitar solo by Omar Torrez, and “I’ll Shoot the Moon” from The Black Rider, with a please-call-me-baby long spiel mocking modern telephone communication. “Your phone is also a camera,” Waits quipped, “but my sunglasses are also a tricycle.”
“This is a song about family reunions,” Waits said next. “I hate family reunions. There’s so much family there. All these people I’ve been avoiding all year show up. . . Uncle Bill, I owe him money. Look away. No, wait, he owes me money! Get his ass over here. And of course, the infamous. . .”—and starting “Cemetery Polka”—“Uncle Vernon, Uncle Vernon, independent as a hog on ice. . . “
“Singapore” wrapped up with Waits falling over horizontally and banging like a kid on the highest keys of a toy piano, ending with a gargantuan gong-like thud that rumbled dramatically throughout the tent, which became the perfect venue for a long, spoken-word freeform about the circus. As the band played “Russian Waltz” in the background, Waits spun taut yarns about carnival characters such as Yodeling Elaine, Funeral Wells, Little Tiny, Poodle Murphy and Tripod (“how he got the name Tripod is another story altogether”). Interspersed with a snippet of “Tabletop Joe,” the inspired number ended with Waits shouting, like a howling broken wino, “Leave the bum! Leave the bum! Leave the bum!”
True to tradition, Waits dissected the various laws, both real and imagined, native to Dublin: “A lot has changed since I was here last,” he said. “It’s now illegal to force a monkey to smoke in Dublin, for example. And it’s against the law to get a fish drunk here! I used to come here just for that.”
Pointing out that the beginnings to many of his songs sound the same, Waits plowed into “God’s Away on Business,” one of many newer songs that benefited from fresh arrangements. Being on the road has invigorated Waits’ more recent material; they’re looser, more open. They breathe more. “Metropolitan Glide,” “Hoist That Rag,” “Lie To Me”—I saw these songs last month in Phoenix and they’ve changed, drastically, for the better. “Hoist That Rag,” in particular, was amazing, with beautiful Stravinskyesque piano solos by Dublin’s own Patrick Warren, possessed electric guitar soloing by Torrez, and blistering saxophone work by a rejuvenated Vincent Henry, playing and joking astride Waits’ youngest son Sullivan on second tenor sax.
On the subject of the band, I gotta say, Casey Waits on drums has come through like no one could have ever imagined. Much like Denardo Coleman backing up Ornette, it seemed a novelty at first, back when Casey was 14—but now, Casey’s grown into his own, and he’s perfect for his dad’s behind-the-beat style. Kudos, my friend. And bassist Seth Ford-Young, who came in just a week or so before the tour to replace Larry Taylor, very well may have secured himself a permanent place in the band. He’s excellent.
The band was given a break when Waits sat down at the piano to deliver the highlight of the night. “This was a request. . .” he announced. “. . . my own request.” A beautiful, beautiful “Tom Traubert’s Blues” ensued, to a ridiculously wild standing ovation. It didn’t stop there. “On the Nickel,” an overlooked gem from Heartattack and Vine, came next, and then “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which slaughtered the sentimental hearts of everyone in the crowd. He started “House Where Nobody Lives,” but then ditched it. “That’s a short one,” he said, “sometimes the short ones are the best. Why don’t we do one we can all sing on?” Alas: “Innocent When You Dream.”
“Green Grass” had Waits in a low whisper, while “Lie to Me” brought him strutting around his dusty pedestal. “Dirt in the Ground” was played in a striking new meter, sort of a 6/8 over a 4/4, as Waits loosely whispered the words in a low, ominous tone, and “Make it Rain” became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the tent started pattering away with raindrops from above. Long, drawn-out, and heavenly, the song came to a close with Waits cupping his hands to his mouth and shouting “Make it rain!” back up to the obliging sky. Upon the final chord, a hailstorm of glitter showered down from the top of the tent. “Good night!” said Waits, and as the crowd bumrushed the stage, he made his way across the entire front row, reaching out over the edge and touching hands with the devoted, clearly overwhelmed.
The three-song encore ended with “Time,” and there was no more perfect way to end the night—except, perhaps, wandering out into the raining Dublin night with 3,000 other fans utterly dumbfounded with bliss. It was about a mile-long walk to the nearest pub to meet up with our ride, and we were soaked. It didn’t matter. Last night was simply one of the greatest shows I’ve ever been to, and worth every step through every rainy night in any blustery city in the world.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Lucinda / Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well
On the Other Side of the World
I’ll Shoot the Moon
Get Behind the Mule
Cold Cold Ground
Circus / Tabletop Joe
God’s Away on Business
Tom Traubert’s Blues
On the Nickel
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minnneapolis
House Where Nobody Lives (false start)
Innocent When You Dream
Lie to Me
Hoist that Rag
Bottom of the World
Way Down in the Hole
Dirt in the Ground
Make it Rain
Jesus Gonna Be Here
This is an obsessed-fan review, here, folks. When Tom Waits tours, there are no press passes. You wanna review the show, you’ve gotta buy your own tickets like the rest of ‘em. And that’s fine by me.
When Tom Waits tours, he doesn’t play in the Bay Area. You wanna see Tom Waits, you’ve gotta buy airplane tickets and fly somewhere else. And that, too, is fine by me.
So my friend Gerry and I flew 800 miles in 115-degree heat to see Tom Waits in Phoenix, AZ—his closest show—and we slept on the floor of the airport afterwards to catch a flight back home the next morning at 6am. Tickets: $100 each; airfare: $200 each; food and miscellaneous expenses: about $200.
Was it worth it? Completely.
Walking into the beautiful Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday night, we were met with marching drums, gongs, organs, and a ringside fight bell littering the stage. Hanging from the ceiling above were two huge, heavy sculptures of rusty bullhorns quietly emitting the sound of old 78s. And from the first to the last note, Waits commanded the room like a giant, slamming his feet on a dust-covered pedestal; punctuating each songscape with his stickman ballet; tumbling to the ground like an elastic wooden doll. His band was incredible—a six-ring ensemble who hauntingly conjured atmospheres more than they performed songs. I was literally on the edge of my seat, with my eyes wide open, through the entire show.
It’s gonna get interesting as the tour continues. According to people working on the inside, Waits and his band spent rehearsals at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley running through over 65 songs in preparation for this tour.
But on Wednesday night, during a two-hour set, Waits offered a lopsided view of his majestic career. He played nothing at all from his Asylum years. Instead, he concentrated on material from Real Gone, his latest and most underwhelming album. When I came home from Phoenix and looked up the set list for the previous night, I wished I’d gone to that show instead. (But sweet Christ, at least I didn’t go to El Paso.)
The set list of an artist with zillions of songs is always a hard thing to accept. Shouldn’t we, as an audience, be happy with whatever the artist we avowedly love wants to play? I’ve seen plenty of prolific artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Sonny Rollins, Guided by Voices, Frank Sinatra, A Tribe Called Quest—and because of their extensive recorded output, I’ve inevitably spent some time during the show wishing they were playing some other, and usually older, song. It might not be fair, but as a fan, I can’t help it.
Also, Tom Waits basically plays blues songs now. One-chord, stomping blues songs that just sort of chug along and don’t really go anywhere. Lots of white guys in their fifties immerse themselves in the “authenticity” of blues music, never to resurface—but if there’s anyone who can push past it, it’s Waits, and I hope that he does.
All of this I’d expected. So the show’s many highlights were a welcome surprise. “Cemetery Waltz” was unbelievable, as was a lower-register version of “Dirt in the Ground.” “November” came as a delightful rarity from The Black Rider, probably Waits’ most underrated album, and “Lost in the Harbour,” a poignant song from Alice, written around the same time, was beautifully performed on a reed organ.
Two songs gave me actual chills: “The Day After Tomorrow,” which I last saw performed (and cut short!) on The Daily Show (“my moment of zen”). Also, “A Little Rain,” which despite Waits’ new bassist Seth Ford-Young being slightly sharp throughout the entire song was still mesmerizing. Three cheers, too, for “All the World is Green” and “Hoist that Rag,” during which guitarist Omar Torrez thrilled with a dead-ringer Marc Ribot impersonation.
In other band news: Waits might be able to replace Ribot, but he sure can’t replace Ralph Carney. Saxophonist Vincent Henry proved an able accompanist, but man, his solos sounded like something from the Saturday Night Live band; just completely out of place. Casey Waits on drums was probably the biggest surprise—supremely tasteful and stylistically adaptable—and although Larry Taylor’s been Waits’ right hand man for decades on bass, Ford-Young’s tone and style is actually better suited to his material.
At times, Waits was his own best backing musician. During “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six,” he crashed his foot down in time onto a pedal, clanging the ringside boxing bell in time to the choruses. But between songs, his unfortunate accompaniment was the many rude and unintelligible shouts from the crowd. (Do hipster wannabes in vests and bowler hats annoy you? Do people shouting inane things like “You go, Tom!” in between songs annoy you? Be forewarned.)
All in all, it was a truly magical night, and one that ended too soon. It’s easy to relate facts and to dissect set lists, but it’s impossible to capture the presence that is Tom Waits on stage. Before the show, I’d started to wonder if I was crazy for flying all the way to Phoenix just to see him—especially when I’m seeing him again in Dublin next month. But afterwards, underneath the Phoenix sky and filled with a dizzying love, I was ecstatic that I made the trek, and felt like one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to witness the show.