Best Of '99: Tom Waits Previews New Album In Rare Show

Troubadour's concert was hottest ticket at South by Southwest.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Monday, March 22.]

AUSTIN, Texas — "Where you been, Tom?" a woman yelled near the end of Tom Waits' two-hour show at the Paramount Theater in the early morning hours Sunday.

The grizzled singer tilted his head and croaked, "I been in traffic school. I had a lot of tickets. It adds up, believe me."

Waits then joked about getting a degree in parallel parking and got back to work, bowing his head down by his knees and smacking his hands together to count off one of his newer tunes, "Hold On."

Every year the South by Southwest Music Conference, an annual confab of music business professionals and young bands, produces a bona-fide must-see show. Last year, it was a rare club gig by guitar terrorists Sonic Youth; this year, troubadour Waits upped the ante with one of his only live performances of this decade.

Dressed in a dark denim jacket and pants, a white undershirt and crumpled brown fedora, the raspy-voiced singer was his quintessential, nonchalant self during the show, during which he dipped into his catalog of gut-bucket blues and Tin Pin Alley-like ballads and previewed three songs from his upcoming Epitaph Records debut, Mule Variations (due April 27).

Hundreds of fans, some of whom you might have heard of, lined up outside the ornate old theater on Congress Avenue as early as 4:30 a.m. Saturday hoping to score one of South by Southwest's hottest tickets.

At the front of the line was 28-year-old Shane Carbonneau, of Austin, who said he had to literally beg, borrow and lie to get in. "I had to borrow my friend's [festival] badge, sneak into the convention center and tell a really elaborate story to get this ticket," Carbonneau said.

Waiting behind Carbonneau on the cold concrete was Mark Linkous, frontman of the experimental Virginia rock band Sparklehorse. "I'm a huge fan of Tom," Linkous said. "I'm really looking forward to this."

Linkous did, it should be noted, have more than the usual fan interest in the show. He said he was anxious to meet up with Waits later, hoping to determine that the troubadour had completed recording his part for a song on Sparklehorse's next album.

Waits took the stage just after midnight, waltzing to the microphone as if he'd always been there. He kicked his left leg like a mule and gripped the microphone stand with both hands as if trying to choke it.

Accompanied by a four-piece band that included Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel, Waits charmed the rapt audience with such chestnuts as the clattering "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six"

(RealAudio

excerpt) (from 1983's Swordfishtrombones) and the tender

ballad "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" (from 1974's The

Heart of Saturday Night).

Although the show was packed with such whoop-inducing Waits staples as "Downtown Train," "Temptation" and "Heart Attack and Vine," the centerpiece of the show was the new "Filipino Box Spring Hog," a foot-stomping number from Mule Variations.

Waits started the song by squeezing out a ragged, a cappella howl; Hormel slowly weaved his way in with a subtle wah-wah guitar accompaniment. On Waits' order, drummer Stephen Hodges leapt into the mix with a booming, hip-hop-like backbeat, giving the ragged number the feel of a gritty front-porch blues jam.

Grinding out his vocals in his trademark throaty bellow, Waits did his best James Brown imitation near song's end, suddenly pointing to random band members to give them the spotlight. The instant crowd favorite ended with Waits telescoping a spectral, far-away voice through his cupped hands.

Almost as entertaining as the songs were Waits' between-song meanderings and asides.

He bided his time between numbers, tinkling the ivories of his center-stage grand piano while he told impromptu stories about his hobby of breaking in other people's shoes; of a band he'd heard the night before playing on the back of a flat-bed truck; and the use of leeches in medicine.

"The scar they leave is the same as the logo of a Mercedes Benz," Waits cracked. "And they say there's no truth in advertising."

Waits touched on smoky jazz, window-rattling falsetto singing ("Temptation"), gospel-like blues ("Jesus Gonna Be Here") and piano-bar balladry ("Innocent When You Dream"), and commanded three standing ovations from the normally blase SXSW horde, which included also such peers as singer/songwriters Lucinda Williams and Austin's Alejandro Escovedo.

"I'm just beside myself," said Giant Sand/Calexico member Joey Burns.