Tom Waits / June 26, 2008 / St. Louis (Fox Theatre)
For a huckster, Tom Waits certainly is generous.Do a quick internet search and there are more than 600 references of "Tom Waits" and the term "huckster" together. Snake oil, parodist, sly salesman, etc., a vocabulary of carnival-esque trickery have followed the man; as critic Robert Christgau quipped in the 1970's, "Waits is so full of shit…" (as he ripped the Pomona, Calif., native apart).
But whatever Tom Waits is selling, his diverse and unifyingly strange fanbase is buying. The whole Glitter & Doom tour is sold out, with many dates since opening day. With Waits' latest release almost two years behind him -- and a rarities and leftovers triple-disc collection "Orphans" at that --the songwriter wasn't on any agenda to promote new efforts, having any number of suitcases from which to pull his wares at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis.
The scene was already set for poetry, play and parody. This gorgeous, longstanding venue has lasted more than 70 years, ornate as though it were brand new.
Sheathed in gold paint and dollops of ruby, rich blues, Moorish design and accent lights, Fox Theatre is a treasure to house treasures. Suspended above the stage in topsy-turvy fashion and perched on a series of metal bars in the back, the heads of megaphones and bullhorns were suspended, pulled from their bodies like the beheaded victims of Waits' pagan rituals.
Starting out with a literal bang, the 58-year-old singer stepped to the mic and stomped his foot onto his soapbox, causing baby powder or whatever fine magical dust he had up there rise up like smoke and he tore into "Lucinda." He wagged a warning finger and threw his arms across his body like a drunken evangelist, his face taut in revealing the Good Word.
"Way Down in the Hole" was quickly stolen by Vincent Henry, who played on double sax. The song title, too, was an apt description for the sound mix. Though Waits' astonishingly tight and emotional band had the mix down, his grumbling vocals seemed to fall on either side of one's ear, but never quite in it. The nuanced performance lost some luster, on and off, as his lyrics were muddied.
Solitary and sultry, Waits sang "Falling Down" in front of a red haze and built tension where previously there was none on "Black Market Baby." As the crowd shouted their I -ove-yous to Waits in between tracks, he volleyed back "I love you too, babe," flashing the inside flap of his red satin-lined suit jacket.
Omar Torrez, who kept his utterly delightful nastiness buried previously, started "All the World is Green" with a dextrous Spanish guitar intro. Waits' son Casey on percussion kicked off the sample-based "Heigh Ho (The Dwarfs Marching Song)," playing along on an intense wood block board -- think less "Snow White" and more "Alice in Wonderland." Waits finally gathered up a working bullhorn (which had yet to be dismembered) and otherwise cupped his hand about his mouth on this impressive vocal performance.
Samples were also used later for the claps on "Get Behind the Mule," a track that went a little too long to be comfortable. It's hard to shake, but there's something a little disappointing about listening to a quality ensemble that still uses tracking and pre-recorded snippets, no matter how essential those sounds are.
Waits picked up his junior guitar, blowing off the "smoke": "I miss you so much / I can't wait to see you / the day after tomorrow," he sang on touching "The Day After Tomorrow," barely accompanied. The ballad was replaced by creepy and hilarious "Rain Dogs" track "Cemetery Polka," "inspired by relatives who came too early and left too late." The sextet was ensconced in a sick green light, and Waits finished with the punchline: "That's family for you."
Sticking with the "Rain Dogs" theme, he crept to the piano for "Hand Down Your Head" and, later, "Anywhere I Lay My Head," "Singapore" and the klezmer/Weimar influenced title track.
He slid over to organ for "Lost in the Harbor" and returned to the full band format on "I Make It Rain," during which, naturally, he was rained upon by glitter at the signal of his whistle. The gold confetti stuck to his face and filled the brim of his bowler, dumped off later and revealing his aging, downy hair. "This is about a girl who lied to me. And I told her to continue to do so," Waits recalled before starting the rockabilly "Lie to Me" from the Brawlers "Orphan" disc. Sad waltz "On the Other Side of the World" precluded sea-lovin' "Singapore," Waits' idiosyncratic hrm-chah leading it off like the engine of whatever vessel (or planet) he's on.
The band lost it a little on long-running "Dirt in the Ground" but then a single, precariously blinking lightbulb descended from the ceiling to inspire the spoken word "What's He Building"… before Waits accidentally killed the bulb. The group raced toward the end, Waits introducing all the band -- including keyboardist/pianist Patrick Warren and upright bassist Seth Ford-Young. "16 Shells" preceded a chill-inducing "Rain Dogs."
The group shined off with "Goin' Out West," "Anywhere I Lay My Head" and piano-led "You Are Innocent When You Dream" for the encore. Waits invited the theater to join him on the latter, one of the few times the songwriter encouraged such participation. For a huckster, Waits certainly is generous.