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
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?"
excerpt). Waits ended the night with two encores, and then, with
a deep bow and a flourish of the hat, he was gone.