Last week I was lucky enough to catch Tom Waits in Paris. One of the last truly hard tickets out there. Front row seats for the Grand Rex went for a whopping 140 Euros a pop. But because of a cunning ticket selling scheme, where tickets were printed with your name and entrance in the theater was only possible with valid ID that matched the name printed on the ticket, the black market was close to no factor in the sales this time around. The Grand Rex proved to be the perfect venue to see Waits. The big stage complete with curtains, lusciously decorated balconies and palm trees, the Grand Rex breathes the days of old. Getting comfortable in one of those big leather theater chairs you feel like you just walked into a relic of the twenties. The Grand Rex could have easily have been a scene in one of Tom Waits songs, which often sound like they would be better at ease in the roaring twenties than this globalized new millennium.
Watching a Tom Waits show on this tour is like stepping into a depression era circus or carnival. With Waits as the ring master you half expect guest spots for the bearded lady or the human snake. Dressed in a costume tailors stopped manufacturing about a century ago, sporting a bowler on his head Tom Waits aims to transport you from here to a dustier, more mysterious time. A time where fortune tellers were about as reliable as mad scientists, a time where a quack was just as likely to heal your paralyzed legs as the revivalist preacher. Tom Waits shows and songs are objet trouvés whipped into something deranged through his seemingly constant delirium, a left over from his whiskey years. Waits outlook on the world is delightfully unique, which makes his work somewhat hard to access, but once you’re able to look at you’re surroundings through his eyes, he sticks to you like a rash.
After waiting in a over heated Grand Rex in tropical Paris, the dust sprang up when Waits started stomping his feet to a deranged rhythm. His gravel voice would gurgle and spit out the songs that would soothe and fascinate for the next two and a half hours. Waits doesn’t sing his songs, he acts them out. Waits doesn’t do shows he does theater. The band is there to support the theater and the songs sound like a crackling 78rpm record. Where his last studio album “Real Gone” leaned heavy into a guitar sound, on stage, this time around, Waits opened up the sound. While that meant that some songs didn’t quite carried the punch you’d expect, it did make room for surprising arrangements of old fan favorites and the obscurities that litter his catalog. Show stopper “Make it Rain” was padded out with piano and sax, “Lie to Me” went back into the Western barrooms. Surprisingly the traveling circus that is a Tom Waits show made quite a few stops that his albums rarely made. Most notably on “Black Market Baby” with a brand new Reggae rhythm, but through out the show there were whiffs of Cuban son, pinches of Trinidad Calypso and table spoons of Argentina Tango. Making the performance an especially tasty and spicy stew.
Somehow in Tom Waits hands all these weird ingredients, strange melodies and exotic hooks become the most natural singalongs. Throughout the evening Waits had the audience eating out of his hands, had them enchanted in his ringmaster command, being able to even direct his own applause without it seeming arrogant or jaded. For many the high light of the show was the moment Waits sat down behind the piano himself, accompanied by only a string bass. If anything Tom Waits has always been a beat poet born two decades too late. Behind the keys he seems to pull weird tales right out of his sleeve that could’ve come straight out of an old pulp magazine. In the context of the evening his yarns make perfect sense, it isn’t until you walk out that you realize that it probably isn’t possible to have bullfrogs living in your stomach.
The recent Atlanta show is now available on NPR for streaming and in pod cast download.
About the author: I started blogging out of a fascination with Soul music, Bruce Springsteen and Americana in general. Over at Boss Tracks I'm blogging on Bruce Springsteen and the songs he covered. http://bosstracks.blogspot.com/