Worth The Waits? - Tom Waits at the Hammersmith Apollo, 23/11/2004
'I know, I know - seventeen years...' Tom Waits sighs in a speaking voice even more singular and peculiar than his singing one. 'And do you know what I've been doing all this time? - yeah, traffic school. It's a graduate course. I think they might have a job for me if my singing career falls through.' This is one of the more straightforward comments during a gig which proves to be as memorable for surreal comedy as it is for the extraordinary dynamism of its music.
Whilst London has waited a long time to see another Tom Waits gig (most of the audience, myself included, had probably never seen him perform before), we have all had ample opportunity to familiarise ourselves with his distinctive vocal rasps and madcap musical approach. Since his return to recording with 'Mule Variations' in 1999, he appears to have entered another prolific phases, following it with the dual releases 'Alice' and 'Blood Money' in 2002, and now with the relentless, clanging primal blues of 'Real Gone'. Could the fact that the Waitsian oeuvre has now become so ubiquitous (and so influential) dilute the impact of finally seeing one of the greatest living songwriters live and in person?
Mercifully, the answer is absolutely not. Waits has moaned at length in interviews about how little he likes performing and travelling - but none of this is in evidence tonight. On stage, he cuts an imposing and wildly eccentric figure - slightly hunched, but animated with theatrical gesture and exaggerated expression. His voice too is extraordinary, and he also demonstrates tonight that he is adept at controlling and manipulating it. It can veer from a savage growl to a tender, emotive whimper. For all his experimenting and adventurous arranging, Waits brings plenty of the more emotive and affecting side of his musical personality to the show tonight. As mentioned above, he also brings bizarre stories - such as the auction of a cheese sandwich containing the impressed image of the Virgin Mary, and relating fascination with the sound of a spider strumming his web 'to attract the female spider'. He is as raffish and bohemian a character as his myth would suggest.
The Apollo is larger than the theatres that Waits prefers to perform in, yet it retains a sense of intimacy and occasion that is sorely absent from most of London's major gig venues. Brixton Academy this is not. It provides an apt atmosphere for Waits' sense of drama and performance. Even though my seat is near the back of the stalls, I don't feel distant from the action - in fact, I feel immersed and completely involved in the whole experience right from the outset. The opening 'Hoist That Rag', one of the best tracks on the new album, is an exhilirating rush of bare bones percussion (provided by percussionist Brain Mantia and Waits' youngest son, seemingly only about twelve years old), thrumming upright bass and the Cuban-inflected guitar of Marc Ribot. This stripped back sound provides the blueprint for much of the gig - and it is simply thrilling to hear such expert musicians make so much of so little. 'Make It Rain' has only the most fundamental of harmonic and rhythmic structures, but it sounds brutal and insistent, a sense only heightened by Waits' singing of half the song through a giant megaphone. Brain plays only a skeletal drum kit, but the range of sounds and timbres that emerge from it are constantly fascinating. Ribot is one of the world's greatest guitar players, and he is given ample opportunity to show off his chops during the show. His often lengthy solos are never anything less than engaging - a refashioning of blues forms characterised by a staggering ability to switch between languid fluidity and crisp stabs. There simply are not enough superlatives for his playing tonight.
Unsurprisingly, the set certainly favours the more recent material, with the lionshare of the evening being devoted to 'Real Gone'. I've been quite critical of the album elsewhere on this blog, but in live performance, I found the songs to be engaging and compelling - particularly the quieter, more reflective moments such as 'Sins of The Father' and 'Trampled Rose'. The primitive rhythmic thrust of the main set closer 'Shake It' and the foreboding of 'Don't Go Into That Barn' also made for captivating listening, even if they are merely extensions of a blueprint Waits had mastered before.
Set next to older material, the new songs also felt less remonstrative and overbearing than they do on what remains a slightly overlong album. I could never have predicted just how entertaining this gig was. When the audience started clapping on during 'Eyeball Kid', I thought oh no, this won't be appreciated, Waits is far too serious an artist for this. Of course, though, the song is one of Waits' most humorous, and he was happy to lead the audience through call and response chants of 'Hail Hail!' and 'Hallelujah!' which were splendid fun. He also plays 'Jockey Full Of Bourbon', one of the most familiar selection from his pioneering eighties period, and reworks the melody with little respect for the original tune. It's a demolition and reconstruction act worthy of Bob Dylan - except with Waits, you can still make out the words. In combining the rhumba and swing versions of 'Straight To The Top', one of the key tracks from 'Frank's Wild Years', his conceptual cabaret musical, he effortlessly combines the theatrical with the musical. He never falls into the trap of keeping a safe distance from his audience, or indeed patronising them. This is a consistently engaging and satisfying performance.
We also get a plethora of ballads that include some of his most moving songs. Marc Ribot moves from guitar to horn for a most welcome rendition of 'Fish and Bird', which provided one of the set's two great moments of emotinal intimacy and vulnerability. The other came with 'Day After Tomorrow', the quiet, plaintive and utterly brilliant concluding track on 'Real Gone'. It's tale of a soldier at war offers something more than arguments or analysis - it offers a real human perspective on war, something that has frequently been lost in recent debates over weapons and terror. It is brilliantly apt but also has that timeless quality that divides great songwriting from the merely adequate. Almost as good is the distinctive rendition of 'Alice'. Whilst on the album of the same name, this song was dominated by Waits' woozy barroom piano, it now assumes a new character thanks to Ribot's remarkably elegant acoustic guitar picking. With Waits hissing at the end of every verse ('there's only Alicccccccccce') it also has a slightly sinister edge.
For the encore, the stage crew wheel out an upright piano and we get a raft of Waits' blues and gospel tinged ballads. To combine all these songs together at the end feels like a somewhat stilted conciliatory gesture towards those Waits fans who prefer his piano playing to his maverick cabaret act. Whatever the motive, it's still great to hear these songs. 'Come On Up To The House' is as rousing as the old spirituals it shamelessly emulates, whilst 'House Where Nobody Lives' and the wonderful 'Invitation to the Blues' are positively gin-soaked. It's invigorating to hear Waits recapture this sound, despite his current status as teetotal family man. If Waits usually appears a frustratingly elusive character (a notoriously difficult interviewee who spends his life in splendid rural isolation with his wife and children), tonight he appears charismatic, enthusiastic and brimming with life. It's just a shame that the venue stubbornly stuck to the 10.30 curfew and wouldn't allow a second encore. After all this time (and the excessive ticket price), I think we all deserved it.
I can only really add two caveats to all this lavish praise. Whilst this was an outstanding concert - so were recent (and lengthier) performances from Brian Wilson and Bruce Springsteen, for which the prices were not quite so extortionate. It was also a stripped back show, where the focus was on the band and subtle lighting effects, rather than on props and theatrics - so I fail to see why such a staggering price was really necesssary. Also, the audience proved frustrating, from the hugely irritating obsessives behind me - 'but in Berlin there was cheering before he came on stage - surely they are going to start cheering now'. No, you twat. We'll cheer when the lights go out and when we want to if that's OK with you - and stop bragging about how many shows you've managed to attend. I'd rather savour the one and keep it special. Even worse were the seemingly endless flow of boho fools in pork pie hats and suit jackets. Just because you like the music does not mean you have to pretend that you are Tom Waits for goodness sake! Unsurprisingly the place was full of the great and good - Thom Yorke, Guy Garvey from Elbow and many more were apparently all present. I didn't succeed with any celeb spotting unfortunately. Actually, there weren't even any decent lookalikes, but the great lookalike game should probably be reserved for another post!
There is a good rumour going around that Waits will be back in London next spring for a week long residency at a smaller venue. If you can afford the prices, make sure you get there, you really won't regret it.
Lots of album reviews to come when I find a gap in my currently hectic schedule!