Saturday, June 21, 2008

Live: Tom Waits, El Paso Plaza Theatre

My companions for the trip to El Paso were a guitar player, a pizza maker and a guy who drives trains, fitting because that's exactly the type of rag-tag company I imagine Tom Waits likes to keep.

Inside the magnificent restored Plaza Theatre, Waits took his place on a slightly elevated platform, center stage and smack in the middle of a junkyard set that was as odd and fitting as his video "press conference" announcing the tour.

In what appeared to be an all black leather suit, Waits shimmied and stomped his way through the opener "Lucinda," one of the "Brawlers" that highlight his 2006 Orphans box set. Looking like a scarecrow come to life, he raised a small cloud of dust with every stomp, a rhythmic and mood-setting touch that was brilliant.

Next up was "Way Down in the Hole," a resurgent tune among his best known tunes now thanks to its appearance on The Wire and subsequent cover versions. With those two songs Waits set a spooky and mesmerizing tone that carried most of the way through the show.

I was more clueless than I wished on the set list, which took a big detour from his Phoenix shows. Nine of the songs came from his records this decade, and along with the three 1999 tunes, it was a surprisingly new set list. The highlight for me was those three tunes from Mule Variations - "Chocolate Jesus" in the high-energy early part of the set, an exceptionally bluesy "Get Behind The Mule" mid-set and the gorgeously mournful "House Where Nobody Lives" during his short stint on piano.

I've always leaned more toward Waits piano ballads and would've loved it if he'd sat at the keys for a few more songs, but Waits seemed restless and was back to his quirky stomping and preacher-style arm waving quickly.

Right before his first tune on the piano, a cop walked out on stage, saying he was there to serve Waits with something. The singer turned wiley, with a string of excuses that ended with him saying that he didn't know exactly where Tom Waits was, but he could surely get a message to him. The bizarre interlude ended with Waits being given the key to the city, and saying "If you find me in your living room in my underwear, we have an understanding."

We talked afterward about whether Waits knew what was happening, or how he'd been approached about an in-set interruption. Turns out, he set the whole thing up himself, according to the review in the El Paso Times.

Thinking back, I'm taken by just how accurately named this tour is. Glitter & Doom is evocative of Waits' music in general, but there's something extra fitting about his live performance Friday. He's a showman to the core, and as he ran through song after song, he kind of danced around both of those extremes. With "Lucinda" and the closing "Dirt in the Ground," I'd say he mixed in equal measures of glitter and doom.

The show was a remarkable experience, and one that in no way satiated my desire to see Tom Waits live. I was able to put a check mark on that goal, but all I really want now is to see the reclusive and rarely-touring Waits again and again.

Tom Waits - House Where Nobody Lives (live Storytellers)
Tom Waits - Storytellers 1999 (zip file)

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