Photo by Mark C. Austin/click here for a slideshow
Funny. If I had to make one of those road-trip/desert-island lists of music I “couldn’t live without,” Tom Waits’ 1985 album Rain Dogs would probably be on it, as I suspect it would for a lot of people. However, loving Rain Dogs never really translated into my becoming a Waits fan per se. The only other album of his I even own is Swordfishtrombones, and I’ve listened to that all the way through maybe three times.
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So, considering Waits’ two-hour set list at Jones Hall last night was at least 85 percent drawn from 1992’s Bone Machine and later, I suppose you could say I was at a disadvantage. Judging by the eagerness of the sold-out crowd to laugh at Waits’ jokes – a couple were actually funny, a few didn’t make a whole lot of sense and the rest got lost on their way up to the balcony – I was definitely in the minority, as far as swallowing the Tom Waits Kool-Aid. (And by the way, I didn't think it was possible, but his speaking voice is even raspier than his singing voice; he sounds like one of those people who speak through a voice-box implant after throat surgery.)
Us Rain Dogs fans had to make do with a spastic “Cemetery Polka” that was a fair representation of Waits’ cross-pollination of beatnik jazz and guttural blues; whether or not he’s your cup of bourbon, the man does have a unique sound. Other early (or earlier) stuff included the skeletal “Way Down in the Hole” from 1987’s Frank’s Wild Years, and a hushed piano-bass duet of “Tom Traubert’s Blues," the opening track to 1976's Small Change. Judging by the audible gasp that went up from the audience, that took even the diehards by surprise.
The newer songs that stood out most to me were the closing pairing of Bone Machine’s “Murder in the Red Barn,” a creepy slow blues bathed (naturally) in blood-red light, and Mule Variations’ “Eyeball Kid,” which used a slow crescendo to build up the kind of steam that had been eluding Waits and his five-piece band – including son Casey on drums – the rest of the night. Mule Variations’ “Come on Up To the House" was so stately it was almost hymnlike, and the art-damaged gospel of Bone Machine’s “Jesus Gonna Be Here” was a true show-stopper. Frankly, though, I thought the show dragged in several other spots, and Waits contorting in time to the music got a little hammy after a while.
Ultimately, I left Jones Hall about as ambivalent about Waits as I had been going in. It’s nice to finally cross him off the list of people I’d never seen before, but I can’t say I’d ever stand in line to see him again (certainly not at last night’s ticket prices). Maybe I will finally get around to buying Bone Machine, though. – Chris Gray