By ROY KASTEN
The glitter fell but doom never did. So much the better for this -- how else can it be put? -- historic Tom Waits show at the Fox Theatre. Not that Waits didn’t try to summon all the spirits in the boneyard at the end of the junkyard at the end of the world. The hall roared when he gave “What’s He Building In There?” all his crypto-voyeurism, but his greatness has nothing to do with channeling Vincent Price. And who cares who “Mr. Stitches” is anyway? One can only take so much persona.
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For all the prophecies of chaos and clusterfucks that heralded the anti-scalper gouge-fest that is the Tom Waits ticketing system, the Fox staff moved the sell-out crowd through the block-long lines on Grand like they knew what they were doing. To think I could I have driven to Memphis, chased some trucker speed with a half pint of bourbon, and made it back to St. Louis, stopping for all the coffee and cigarettes I could consume at every other truck stop along the way, for the same price as my VIP2 Row H ticket. I might have gotten some stories out of it, but none of them would have been history.
More after the jump.
So if it’s true that Waits last played St. Louis 30 years ago (there’s apparently a photo of a young Tom on the walls of B B’s Jazz Blues and Soups; was it there that he played?), then the question of why he waited so long to return answers itself. One concert every five, even every ten is an event. Once in a third century changes everything, and your grand kids will want to hear all about it.
What you should tell them, first off, is that from a purely aesthetic vantage, Waits is much better on record -- or at least on the great records of the Island and Anti- years. It’s not a fair comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s not inevitable. The performative power, the stage-as-the-world, is already there on the records. They are self-contained planets of sound, ideas, rhythms, beautiful and demanding black holes that take hold of everything and make everything vanish.
You should also tell them to have that extra cocktail and cigarette because Tom might just start an hour late. But at 9:00 pm the house lights went down on the pawnshop basement stage – dominated by an iconic air horn and megaphone totem tree – and the band began grinding out “Lucinda,” the first of many obscurities from the great Orphans collection. With the opening lines, “They call me William the Pleaser / I sold opium, fireworks and lead / Now I’m telling my troubles to strangers / When the shadows get long I’ll be dead,” Waits established the ground rules: At this show, he would tell his stories, how and when he’d choose. You’ll get your “Johnsburg, IL” –- played at mid-set with all the fragility of his world –- but you’ll have to get through him first.
Closing in on 60, Waits is his voice, and his voice is a force. It’s one thing to bellow like Satan’s blues brother on a song or two. It’s another thing to do it for nearly two hours straight, no intermission. Without that voice, he’d be on the street, holding a sign and selling pencils from a cup. Or nearly, because there’s the rest of his genius, evident in every preacher, teacher, two-screw-missing drunk gesture, the way he grips the microphone stand like he wants to strangle it, in his get-up — bowler hat, faux shark skin suit – and in the band, moving in the shadows behind him, that he only seems to let do its own thing.
But he directs the players with the stomp of his boot, kicking up clouds of powder from his barker’s platform and dinging a bell on and off time, or a calming gesture of an open hand. They’re on lock from start to finish. His son Casey gets the time-warped signatures and lurching drive, even on a traditional kit, and keyboardist Patrick Warren and long-time bassist Larry Taylor play like jazz men who refuse to play jazz, like rockers who refuse to play rock. Vincent Henry switches between harmonica, guitar and at least three saxophones, sometimes playing two at once, honking like he’s reading invisible soul charts, then just letting the free jazz peal. Omar Torrez, the newest member of the band, seems to have learned every guitar part from every record, and then said quietly to himself, “Fuck you, Ribot, Verlaine and especially G.E. Smith. Here’s how it really goes.” And his acoustic guitar work on “All the World Is Green,” as the red velvet backdrop changed to blue, was its own chromatic world of wonders.
The set charged on through “Down In the Hole,” “Falling Down” (sung like Otis Redding at the crossroads), “Black Market Baby” (with ska echoes), “Heigh Ho!,” “Get Behind the Mule” (the first song Waits played on electric guitar) and what’s now a centrifugal number for Waits: “The Day After Tomorrow.” Lightly plucked on acoustic, with Taylor’s bass carrying the melody behind him, the performance was more pained, more angry than on record. But those emotions are just trace elements. Waits isn’t really an emotional performer, which is not to say he’s stiff or vacant or cold (that would be absurd). But no song (or very very few) are meant to convey emotion, his or anyone else’s.
And no one believes he has lived the stories -- that’s not the point. The point is really that old Brechtian one he knows so well: It’s the theatrical alienation effect from start to finish. We don’t feel for Waits or his world. But we are immersed in it and we wonder at the pure force of will and at the spectacle of it. But for a moment, a song like “The Day After Tomorrow” dismantles the spectacle and leaves just the brute facts.
After a scatter shot “Cemetery Polka,” Waits turned to the piano, with hilarious monologues about eBay, sperm counts and things you can get arrested for in Oklahoma (including having the wrong hair cut or shooting the tie off a cop), and sang “Hang Down Your Head,” “Johnsburg” and the gorgeous “Lost In the Harbor.” He took the dusty pulpit again for “Make It Rain,” (with a shower of glitter sent down on the singer), a clattering rockabilly take on “Lie to Me,” “Singapore” (reworked in almost straight 4/4 time), “Dirt In the Ground,” “What’s He Building In There” (which should have been lit up by a light bulb lowered from the ceiling; Waits broke it with a few too many taps), “Sixteen Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six” and a clap-along “Rain Dogs” to close out the set.
There was just one encore: “Goin’ Out West,” “Anywhere I Lay My Head” and “Innocent When You Dream.” At the piano, the master of will, mood, lo-fi theatre, lyrical archetypes and impossibly true American stories asked the audience to sing along. Everyone submitted because everyone knows a once-in-a-life-time chance when they see and hear one.