LOS ANGELES, CA- Ole Tomcat Waits was on the prowl again Sunday night at the historic Art Deco Wiltern Theatre. The second of 3 sold out shows in LA thatís part of a sold out 5 date mini tour in the States before heading overseas to Europe, Waits showed he is one of rockís last authentic performers, judging by the heat and intimacy he created in the theater that seats 2,200.
He made his presence known before he set foot on stage. Screeching into a red megaphone, our scarecrow Houdini entered from the side, clad in his usual $7 suit and floppy hat. Stomping up to the stage, throwing fairy dust at the audience, and growling in the most warm and refined rasp in music today, he came in like he owned the joint. Beginning the set with a rousing "Black Rider" and moving into a clanky "Singapore", Waits covered his tracks well, focusing for the most part on his last 4 albums and selections from Mule Variations such as the bluesy "Get Behind the Mule", the emotional "Hold On". He let his feverish inner preacher out in "Jesus Gonna Be Here Soon", giving Robert Duvall (The Apostle) a run for his money. The bayou swami didnít even need to charm snakes to make believers out of his audience.
Waits and his first notch band (Smokey Hormel, Larry Taylor, Andrew Borger, and Dan Magough) played well off each other to work out the garage clank and thump in the bluesy, scruffy set. Waits spent the better part of the first half of the show front and center, stomping his feet like an agitated donkey and waving his arms like an experienced magician who loves the kiddies.
He created an ominous, creepy mood for the spoken word piece "Whatís He Building?", from Mule Variations, about the loner wacko neighbors we all have who we are sure are involved in unspeakable acts in the privacy of their living room. He then gravitated to the piano for a moving lump-in-your-throat set that included a melancholic "Hang Down Your Head", an inviting "Come On Up to the House", "Picture in a Frame", and an enjoyable sing-a-long of "Innocent When You Dream" that found me singing a Tom Waits song in unison and in public for probably the first and last time.
All this raw emotion and candor was tempered by his comedian side, as he shared bits of trivia gained from the Guinness Book of Word Records, his observations of LA streets, and jokes with off the wall punch lines that only the lovable Waits could wrangle a laugh from. His timing is impeccable, and more than one comedian in LA should have been paying attention and scribbling notes on self improvement. He also managed to have "Man With Drink" appear. Man With Drink is just what he sounds like, a butler who showed up to serve Mr. Waits his drink on a silver platter. Need I say more?
Waitsís power as a performer is that he has an innate sense of the stage both as a musician and as an actor, a rare quality in rock. Every sound, every gesture is accounted for. And you also know that if he is going to bother doing it at all, every second will be worth it. Thereís a difference when someone is singing because they really want to and not solely because they need the attention. The lighting often seemed to be a blue background with gold lights on the band, making it look like a band playing outside in someoneís yard, or like looking into an aquarium. Either way, it added to the intimacy of the concert.
Seeing a Waits performance is something of a right of initiation into a laid back cult of believers. Most of the people I observed in the audience looked like long time fans who had waited for and thoroughly appreciated the show. These fans came from all walks of life, albeit mostly from the 40ish, middle America set not bothering to score high on the "Cooler than Thou" attitude meter. One woman (also in the nosebleed section) asked how much someone had to pay to be in the front row. "Hundreds of $", her date replied. "Yeah, but why would rich people like Tom Waits?" she retorted. Well said.
Waits ended his set with this longtime favorite: it was "Time, time, time" indeed.