Tom Waits Doesn't Play Favorites For Italian Audience

Singer/songwriter focuses on tracks from recently released Mule Variations.

FLORENCE, Italy — Until last week, the only time Tom Waits' Italian fans got to see him perform in this country was when he sang a few songs at a 1986 awards ceremony.

So naturally, many of the 2,000 people who filled the Comunale Theater here Friday hoped the gravel-voiced singer/songwriter would play their favorite songs from his 26-year career.

But Waits refused to accommodate them. His two-and-a-half-hour show included only a few of his classics, such as 1974's "The Heart of Saturday Night." Instead, Waits mostly performed songs from the recently released Mule Variations, including the bluesy "Get Behind the Mule"

(RealAudio excerpt) and the tender ballad "Hold On" (RealAudio excerpt).

At almost every pause in the performance, fans called out for their favorites, and Waits pretended not to hear.

The audience didn't seem to mind. They reacted wildly to almost every song and theatrical flourish — such as when Waits put on a glittering hat and started spinning around before he performed "Eyeball Kid." Illuminated by a spotlight, the singer looked like a human mirror ball.

Waits frequently waved his hand like a conductor, orchestrating the contributions of his band: bassist Larry Taylor, guitarist Smokey Hormel, keyboardist Dan McGough and drummer Andrew Borger.

"Some random notes, now," Waits said at one point while improvising on piano. "This is interactive music — I play, you connect the notes as you like."

"Of course I missed a lot of songs he didn't play," fan Alessandro Gradi, 30, said. "But he's a real artist, and just like Bob Dylan, he doesn't simply play to please the audience. He seems to live in another dimension, playing and acting almost for art's sake."

Even before the singer took the stage for the sell-out show, which began a three-night stand, the appearance of one fan created a stir. Oscar-winning actor/writer/director Roberto Benigni, who acted with Waits in Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" (1986), was surrounded by photographers as soon as he entered the hall. Benigni smiled and shook many hands as he slowly made his way to his seat.

A similar scene occurred about a half-hour later, when the lights went out and Waits, 49, entered the hall. Dressed all in black, his face nearly hidden under a hat, Waits was almost assaulted by photographers and fans who rushed the stage.

He began his performance by shouting into a megaphone and throwing confetti in the air. Waits then took his place on a square rug onstage and began stomping his feet, raising dust while singing the title song from "The Black Rider," the 1993 theater piece he co-wrote with director Robert Wilson and novelist William S. Burroughs.

At the end of the show, Waits performed the rocking Mule Variations opener "Big in Japan" (RealAudio excerpt), with his 14-year-old son, Casey, sitting in on drums. Kathleen Brennan, Waits' wife and collaborator, watched from behind the stage with the couple's two younger sons.

Waits' Italian dates were the last stop on a four-city, 10-date European tour.