The album-tour-album-tour pattern is so well established that any deviation comes as a pleasant surprise. Of course, anything Tom Waits does is generally full of surprises and more than a little bit d

The album-tour-album-tour pattern is so well established that any deviation comes as a pleasant surprise. Of course, anything Tom Waits does is generally full of surprises and more than a little bit deviant, not to mention endlessly pleasant. But his impulsive decision to tour some seldom visited parts of the States (particularly concentrated in the South and Midwest) is the kind of surprise that's greeted by celebration and exaltation, especially coming from an artist who tours as infrequently as Waits does.

That the Chicago date of Waits' "Orphans" tour instantly sold out shocked no one. More mysterious was what to expect from the sly performer, whose avant-hobo blues has become a touchstone for multiple generations.

Emerging backlit and hunched over from behind a curtain, his arms outstretched like talons, Waits offered a solid two hours of bluesier-than-usual takes on his (mostly) recent catalog, in part because Duke Robillard was on guitar instead of edgier Waits foil Marc Ribot, but also due to the bluesy bent of 2004's "Real Gone."

"What happened to the cows?" asked Waits, referring to a street art exhibition present the last time he came through town, back in 1999. It may as well have been the start of one of his famous shaggy dog stories. Waits delivered a couple of good ones, including a tale of getting trapped in the middle of a pre-teen Minneapolis pimp war ("They were throwing silverware at each other!"), but the banter was kept to a minimum, all the better to make the most of the rare live date.

"Get Behind the Mule," "Down in the Hole" and "Make It Rain" were firmly of the abrasive, gutbucket blues school, as was the radically rearranged "Murder in the Red Barn." "Eyeball Kid" and "What's He Building In There" allowed Waits to indulge his theatrical side, hiding behind a distorted giant lens for the former and growing increasingly agitated by the mystery of the latter.

But while it's the off-keel skronk that makes Waits cool and hip, it's the ballads (often with only his piano and bassist Larry Taylor for accompaniment) that made him heartbreaking. Despite the raucous nature of so much of the set, he was still able to reduce the adoring crowd to pin-drop silence with songs such as "Tom Traubert's Blues," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Time."

That's the genius of Tom Waits: coming off as the bastard offspring of Kurt Weill, Captain Beefheart and the Devil one song, and a sentimental backroom troubadour the next, with each persona equally captivating and never patronizing. He's not yet 60, but Waits has essentially sounded middle aged for decades. Now that he's actually there, it suits him, but like a select few, his stylized rock tumbler of a voice and stage presence only seems to improve with age.

Here is Tom Waits' set list:

"Make It Rain"
"Hoist That Rag"
"Shore Leave"
"God's Away on Business"
"All the World Is Green"
"Falling Down"
"Tango Till They're Sore"
"Tom Traubert's Blues"
"Eyeball Kid"
"Down in the Hole"
"Don't Go Into That Barn"
"Shake It"
"Trampled Rose"
"What's He Building in There?"
"'Till the Money Runs Out"
"Murder In the Red Barn"
"Lie to Me"
"Get Behind the Mule"

encore 1:
"The Day After Tomorrow"
"Singapore"

encore 2:
"Whistling Past the Graveyard"
"Time"