Tom Waits Stomps, Marches Through Raucous Yet Sentimental Set

Boho raconteur plays sentimental favorites, recent songs from Mule Variations at first Boston show in 12 years.

BOSTON — Wearing an ill-fitting, mismatched suit and his

trademark porkpie hat, Tom Waits stepped into the spotlight at the Orpheum

Theater on Sunday and bowed his head, graciously acknowledging the

thunderous applause that greeted him.

It was the first Boston performance in 12 years by the sentimental,

blustering, boho raconteur with the voice pitched between Joe Cocker and

Louis Armstrong. Waits' set reached back to 1976's Small Change

for "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)," then traveled through time

to "Chocolate Jesus" (RealAudio

excerpt) and "What's He Building?" from this year's Mule

Variations.

Waits was in top form for the first night of a sold-out three-night stand.

He blended stomping, marching and preacher-style hand-waving with a spastic

yet strangely graceful collection of balletic movements.

Waits' between-song banter was as entertaining as his musical stylings.

As he roared through the first third of the two-hour set, Waits gave

tongue-in-cheek introductions to several songs.

He said "Get Behind the Mule" was "a song about the equivalent of the

modern-day SUV." He described "Chocolate Jesus" as an "immaculate

confection," then he sang it through a megaphone.

Before launching into "Down, Down, Down," a haunting selection from the

Captain Beefheart-influenced Swordfishtrombones (1983), he delivered

with perfect comic timing a tale about the correlation between the size

of a town and the size of the cigarette lighters used there.

"In small communities, they use big lighters. In big cities, they use

small lighters. I don't really know why. I'm not sure I want to."

He told a story about trying to light a cigarette at a skating rink in

a small town, while observing a lone skater with an encyclopedia —

which, of course, turned out to be a lighter — tucked in his belt.

Early in the set, Waits powdered the small riser he stood on with something

resembling flour. Throughout the night, dust rose from below Waits'

moving feet, coating his suit and evoking a gritty street mood.

After Waits performed "Step Right Up," from Small Change, in the

voice of a carnival barker, his face looking pasty under a white spotlight,

he pulled out a hat covered with mirrors and spun around slowly, casting

diamonds of light on the faces of the crowd. Playing the mirrored hat as

if it were an instrument, Waits turned slowly, with his hands over his

head like a music-box ballerina. He completed the magic moment by standing

silently in the spotlight with his arms sprawled like those of a diabolical

scarecrow and tossing handfuls of purple glitter over his head.

That glittering moment provided a segue into the three-part show's middle

section, in which Waits played keyboards accompanied only by Larry Taylor

on stand-up bass. After seating himself at an upright piano, Waits looked

out at the crowd and said, "So. [Pause]. Where have you all been for the

last 12 years?" After the applause died down, Waits continued, "No. Really.

Each of you — where have you been?"

On the piano, Waits played a collection of sentimental favorites, including

the misty-eyed "Innocent When You Dream" (RealAudio

excerpt), from Franks Wild Years (1987), and "Invitation

to the Blues," from Small Change. He punctuated the songs with

quirky narratives — "[Here's] what I learned in [drunk] driving

school: there are two things you can throw out the window without getting

busted — feathers, without the bird attached, and water, providing

it's in liquid form."

He later ranted about the ubiquity of espresso: "There you are in some

small town, and there's espresso being sold alongside wigs, novelties

and sickroom supplies. I find that troubling."

Then he abandoned the piano, and the clangor that marked the start of

the show returned, with such songs as the creepy "What's He Building?"

(RealAudio

excerpt). Waits ended the night with two encores, and then, with

a deep bow and a flourish of the hat, he was gone.