By Paul Rubin
The best shows are the ones where you go through some unexpected things in your head as you’re watching and listening. It’s really about the magic — the sound and sights of surprise — that transcendent music and performance can be.
It happened to me last night at the Orpheum, as the nonpareil Tom Waits and his five-man band opened its Glitter and Doom Tour before a sold-out house in the sweet old venue in downtown Phoenix. It was one of the more anticipated concerts in these parts in a while, and folks came in from several states, according to Live Nation’s Terry Burke, to check out what the iconic songwriter and performer had in store this go-round.
Waits did the near-impossible and lived up to the great expectations, sweating through his gray suit as he worked himself and his top-drawer band through the paces for two-plus hours.
The guy is a performance artist of the highest rank, a kabuki with a bowler hat, a Delta bluesman not afraid to be romantic, a cynic with a heart of gold.
Waits’ voice, once ravaged by cigarettes and overuse, may be as worn as my old fast-pitch glove, but — like the glove — it can do the trick, which, in his case, is to feel him from the inside out. It was impossible to resist a fella who sings from way down under,
“Well, I see that the world is upside-down Seems that my pockets were filled up with gold And now the clouds, well they’ve covered over And the wind is blowing cold Well, I don’t need anybody, because I learned, I learned to be alone Well, I said anywhere, anywhere, anywhere I lay my head, boys Well, I gonna call my home”
We may as well have been in an Irish pub last night, with the bawdy give-and-take between performer and an audience recharged after a brutal 113-degree Phoenix day.
Waits has more influences in him than an Arizona congressman, yet he remains, to steal one of his lyrics, as independent as a hog on ice. Between songs, he riffed about anything that came to his agile mind, including blue laws said to be on the books in various states.
“You know, it’s against the law [in some state] for a one-armed piano player to get paid,” he said, adding that, from where he sits, that player ought to get paid double. “I’m gonna do something about that!”
He asked the audience about Van Buren Street, which he recalled fondly from his last gig in town, some 32 years ago. It’s the kind of nasty street that Tom Waits invented in his head long ago, and he wanted to know if you could still get a cheap room there.
Someone hollered back something in a faux-Waits trademark gravelly voice about being able to find a cheap whore down there.
Waits laughed, and said that, in the interest of decorum — hah! — it was time to change the subject, “especially at these prices,” by which he meant the $90 a pop ticket tag.
The music that this guy has soaked up during his 58-plus years on the planet is endless: Johnny Cash. Lord Buckley. Ma Rainey. Dylan. Guthrie, and on and on.
Hell, Waits and his band sounded like mad Klezmer scientists on a few tune, so much so that the boy might find a place on the Bar Mitzvah circuit if this selling-out-a-venue-in-five-minutes thing doesn’t work out.
But in the end, Tom Waits is a bluesman, and his music inevitably hearkens back to those “five notes,” as the late Al Wilson of Canned Heat used to say, that are the blues.
Check out some classic Tom Waits.
At one moment during last night’s show, I flashed to a fellow named Robert Pete Williams, whose “disregard for conventional patterns, tunings, and structures kept him from a wider audience,” according to one expert, “but his music remains one of the great, intense treats of the blues.”
That author could be talking about Tom Waits.
Long ago, I checked out Mr. Williams at a show in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. I went because someone told me he was the “Coltrane of the blues,” referring, of course, to jazz innovator John Coltrane.
Two hours after Williams’ transcendent solo performance in front of, say, 20 people, I followed him backstage — a kitchen in a dorm at Yale University — and said hello. The elderly black man plopped onto a stool, drenched in sweat and emotionally spent.
He gestured me in and said to sit down, which I did. He reached into a suitcase and pulled out a bottle of Scotch whiskey. Twisted it open and drank long and hard from it, then handed it to me like I was an old friend, not a 17-year-old from down the road.
It didn’t go down so easily. We didn’t say anything for a minute or so, just passed the bottle back and forth. Finally, the door opened and people stepped in to pay their respects. I stood up, shook his hand, and left.
Though I’ve never shared a taste with Tom Waits, I can safely say that he is a kindred spirit of Mr. Williams’ if ever there was one.
Sitting on one side of me last night was a gent from Sun Valley, Idaho, named Chris, who had driven down fourteen hours or so for the show, losing his air conditioning, he said, as he crossed into Arizona.
This show was a huge deal for Chris, a Waits fan for three decades, as it was the first time he’d seen his musical hero in concert.
“Tom has been at the top of my list of must-sees-before-I-die artists for so long, I can’t believe I’m here,” Chris said just before the show started.
Afterward, he said with a huge grin, “That guy is a damned treasure.”