Thursday, January 20, 2005

Waits and pleasures*

How do you measure intrinsic worth? Patient devotees of Tom Waits' southern gothic cult reasoned that his first UK gig for 17 years was extremely valuable indeed…

When I discovered that did indeed still have some Tom Waits tickets left, after their record selling-out, I was prepared for the worst, and £350 for a pair crippled me for a month or two afterwards.
Waits himself has the air of a man crippled by something. This is probably his voice, which is enough to melt bone at its mellowest. Most of the set was spent almost entirely doubled over, though he occasionally lifted himself to full height, and then some, with the addition of the largest loudhailer I’ve ever seen. I believe it was originally ripped from the Titanic. Or so Tom might have told you – he’s prone to those sorts of tales.
The set began with a thundering selection of Real Gone tracks, during which Tom’s 12-year-old son was enlisted for occasional bongo duties – quite a privilege to see as he is famously private when it comes to his family; you suddenly felt as if you’d been taken under his black wing, however briefly.
As organic as woodland, with even more bark, Waits was probably at his best during the anti-war song The Day After Tomorrow, where he did away with the already minimalist backing band and stood at the front of the stage with an acoustic guitar. The song, both the highest and lowest point in its emotional intensity on his recent album, has more poignancy than any peace demo. Its simple logic, sung in the guise of a soldier placed in some unnamed warzone, is that all he wants to do is come home. The only reason he can see for fighting is to keep himself alive.
When Waits leaves the stage for the first time, the anticipation for his encore is perhaps even greater than it was before the curtain first went up. I found myself running through the unplayed songs so far (you have to be realistic on these things, trawling through a back catalogue of more than 15 albums would take all night) and wondering what he might possibly do with them – we’d already been treated to some wildly different versions of past masters, such as a phenomenal blues-type version of Murder In The Red Barn. Maybe he wouldn’t come back on stage at all and we’d simply sit for another half-hour listening to the percussive loop he’d been using of his own beatbox. Then they wheeled the barroom piano on.
It could have been any number of things, but perhaps the most startling point of this encore was the Swordfishtrombones track Johnsburg, Illinois, a song originally written for his wife Kathleen Brennan. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful songs Waits has written, on the album I always had a nagging irritation with the fact he never quite hit the high notes. For a man with such an accomplished voice, this always struck me as some kind of affectation. And tonight? He got it right. It almost made me weep.
Invitation To The Blues was introduced in a barely discernible rasp with the words “We like this one”, and indeed we did. Then there was a rousing rendition of Mule Variations’ gospel-tinged Come On Up To The House, some opaque banter accompanied by the signature ‘cat on the keyboard’ plonking and it was time to leave the stage.
Inevitably, of course, we were left baying for more. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 17 years to come.
Jon Cocteau
* you could have also had “Tom Waits for no man” or “Better Waits than (n)ever”
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