Tom Waits – Lead Vocal, Guitar, Piano
Larry Taylor – Acoustic Bass
Duke Robillard – Lead Guitar
Casey Waits – Drums, Beat Box
Bent Clausen – Keyboards, Percussion, Banjo
The Louisville sun was oppressive. We were all lined up under its tyrannical blaze, victims of the unmoving, long as fuck, “M through S” line we were thrown into thanks to the last initials we were born with. Will-call tickets require a human filing system. Needless to say, I was quite jealous of anyone whose last name started with “Z”. I was however not jealous of all the Sooooo-phisticated cats dressed head-to-toe in suit wear. A t-shirt was too much clothing for me. A suit would’ve been a health hazard.
So, my gang and I tried to keep our minds off the warmth by occupying ourselves with the next couple hours. We were seeing Tom Waits. HOLY SHIT!!!! What songs would he play? What did we hope he would play? Trying to come up with dream set lists seemed to make the time go by. When we got to the entrance, a poster of Nick Lachey hung across from the Waits poster, so we marveled at that a bit and wondered if the Palace Theater’s follow-up would make half the impression on Louisville that Waits was evidently making.
We managed to make it into the theater, which is absolutely beautiful and classically constructed. After wrestling for our tickets and finding ourselves in yet another line for beer, we got ourselves a seat in the bar area and waited to be summoned. The lights were to flash when the show was beginning.
All around us people were elbows high, dousing their parched throats with beer. It was plain to see that Waits’ influence spanned generations and genres. Everyone was either prim and proper, or poor and punk rock. I saw a girl in her late twenties with a Black Flag tattoo emblazoned on her shoulder, a couple of about 60-something, young kids in pork-pie hats, 60s throwbacks, and then there was the unsettling character with “Yankee, Go Home” tattooed on his upper-chest. Add to the equation the aforementioned suit-n-tie guys and you have somewhat of an idea of the crowd that Tom Waits attracts.
The lights flashed. My fiancé and I ran to our balcony seats and took a look around us. The theater was huge. The ceiling was dome-like, reflecting navy blue light with tiny star-like lights shining like a star-lit evening. The stage was as clear as day from our seats. A drum set sat way to the left of the center platform next to a standing acoustic bass. Behind the platform was an oddly stacked pile of megaphone dishes that provided their amplification. It looked like junk art. It was so appropriate. One of the dishes actually looked like the lamp-shaped output of an old school Victrola. On the other side of the amplifiers were a keyboard and xylophone.
Around us people were commenting about how late it was. Waits was supposed to go on around 8, but the line of people trying to get in kept him from hitting the stage. Unfortunately, it resulted in audience members drinking the extra time away. We were in our seats not five minutes when we heard a disturbance behind us. A girl, left hand firmly attached to her mouth, with her right arm waving around for the sake of balance, was drunkenly trying to reach the bottom of the steps. She managed to spew some vomit droplets on the woman sitting directly behind us before reaching the floor. There were two loud men a couple seats away that were cheering the girl on. She was almost to the exit when a stream of vomit shot out of from under her hand in a fountain-like arc, landing on a couple vacant seats. I think some hit the floor as well. She was a like a soda someone had shaken up. Naturally, there was a lot of “ewww…this is disgusting” coming from the woman that caught some of Vomit Girl’s download. I think the show was more or less ruined for that woman. The way she was going on, I think her life was ruined.
A couple minutes later Vomit Girl, visibly embarrassed, made the walk of shame back up to her seat while passing by her victims. Her eyes were pointed downward the entire time. She got her things and left, having wasted her money and a golden opportunity.
The lights went out. The applause was like thunder. One-by-one band members emerged from behind the curtain and took their respective positions. The music began and then the silhouette behind the curtain came into view looking larger than life. The arms of the legend’s shadow shot out at either side and bent its wrists straight down like a moving scarecrow. The crowd went absolutely apeshit. The man came out, pork-pie hat, disheveled and wrinkled suit; he couldn’t have been better dressed.
Immediately, he rolled himself into a fit of contortions while belting out “Make It Rain”. His bottom jaw jutted out like the drawer of a cash register, while his mouth coaxed out a voice that was somehow distressing and beautiful all at once. It sounded like he’d spent the day gargling broken glass and vinegar martinis, eating the olives without pulling out the toothpick. Within the first thirty seconds, I was convinced that this was the most amazing thing I’d ever witnessed and couldn’t believe that I was there. It was overwhelming.
He followed with “Hoist That Rag” which was remarkable to see played live. On Real Gone, the song sounds like an incredibly complex arrangement, just because of the vibrant yet unpolished percussion and off-tune guitar. To see that arrangement get played so well on stage was engrossing. My eyes were wide the entire time, while the crowed clapped clapped away with the percussion section.
“Shore Leave” and a thundering rendition of “God’s Away On Business” came after that. I had a moment of my own when he played “All The World Is Green.” At points, I actually closed my eyes just so I could heighten my listening and damn near cried. The crowd was amazingly still the entire time.
”Pretend that you owe me nothing/And all the world is green
We can bring back the old days again/And all the world is green…”
Just a note: If anyone reading this doesn’t own a copy of Blood Money, be sure to run right out and pick it up even for “All The World Is Green” alone. The chorus by itself takes you to a wonderful place.
Between songs, Tom kept the crowd entertained. He made reference to the wig store in town, commenting “’Wigs and Hats’? What’s the difference?” He also disclosed his hotel info to the crowd, a sign that he was going to be leaving that night. Everyone clapped after he mentioned that his hotel was right next to the venue. “That never happens!” he remarked.
Amazing renditions of “November” and “Falling Down” were next on the list and then the piano was rolled out. Tom took his place behind the keys. Larry Taylor, the bassist, was the only player that remained.
While lightly touching the piano’s keys, Waits went into this soliloquy about these dog biscuits his dog likes, and how mortified he was when he found they were made of bull penis. It got a great reaction out of the crowd. At one point, an annoyingly intoxicated member of the crowd was obnoxiously yelling at him, and he countered that with “Wha-wha-wha? Wha? You’re the guy that owes me money!” A press release Tom released before the tour expressed that his reasoning for touring was such: “We need to go to Tennessee to pick up some fireworks, and someone owes me money in Kentucky.” The crowd roared.
There was a momentary pause and then light applause when Waits began singing “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” and then you could’ve heard a pin drop. I looked over at my fiancé, who had earlier expressed that she hoped to hear this song and there were light-reflective streaks on her cheeks. She was so moved. I was too. It was another point in the show where I had to just close my eyes and listen. At one point, he repeated a verse. No one gave a shit. It was too good a moment to ruin with know-it-all commentary.
After receiving monster applause, he went into “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore,” and completely fucked it up, but with style. He’d forgotten the verses and kept repeating the one he knew, but related to the crowd the entire time that he’d forgotten it. People were amused. Some were trying to help, shouting the lyrics they knew. One of the guys behind me that had been cheering on Vomit Girl spoke out loud, “It’s okay, no one cares.” Someone on the other side of the balcony we were sitting on yelled out the first couple words to the next verse and the guy remarked again, “See? They care. Why do they care?” It was actually kind of cool that a lot of the fans were happy enough to see the show. It was humanizing to watch our idol, slamming away at the keys and apologizing for forgetting the words. He got through the song, and still earned the admiration and respect of a sold out hall. It was a wonderful moment. He followed that with a lovely rendition of “House Where Nobody Lives” and the piano made its exit.
(to be continued…)
Letters From A Tapehead