Tom Waits at The Palladium Ballroom, Dallas 6/23/08
I don’t usually make it out to shows on Monday night. But in this case, Tom Waits (Yes, that Tom Waits) playing his first show here in thirty years, my first ever opportunity to see him live, I think I can make an exception…
The Palladium was already packed when we got there just a few minutes after eight. We took a spot on the floor where it was as hot and crowded as the bowels of Hell. Somehow, that seemed kind of fitting.
The stage was set up pretty minimally with a bunch of horn like speaker-phones of varying sizes mounted on a huge trellis in the back and three more big speaker-phones up front suspended with some lights hanging down on the left side of them, giving the whole thing an off-kilter, slightly cartoonish quality. It was perfect.
At about 8:30 or so, just enough time to grab a beer at the shortest bar line we could find, Tom Waits and his band came out and launched straight into “Lucinda” from his most recent 3 disc set, Orphans. He stood center stage, dressed in a dark suit and a bowler hat. He waved his hands around, shook his fingers and bellowed it out just the way you would imagine Tom Waits would do. He was totally mesmerizing.
For the next two hours plus he put on a show that anyone paying attention isn’t likely to forget. Twenty plus songs that spanned the last four decades, almost all of which were tweaked just a little (or a lot) differently than you’d heard them before.
His band was exceptionally tight and impressive: Larry Taylor on upright bass, Patrick Warren on keyboards, Omar Torrez on guitars, Vincent Henry on horns and his son Casey Waits on drums and percussion. They managed to perfectly interpret his trademark studio sound onstage. As Waits himself said of them when he announced the tour: “They play with racecar precision and they are all true conjurers…”
“Conjurer” is a pretty good word to describe Waits stage persona. He goes seamlessly from his spoken word poems, to wailing gospel to quiet jazzy ballads to stomping, primal blues; creating an entirely different ambiance with each song while the crowd, down on the floor anyway, hung on every word and every note.
After “Lucinda,” he went straight into “Down in the Hole,” maybe his best known and most covered song. With the exception of a couple of ballads it was as close to the studio version of a song as he got all night.
On “November” He sang with just the right amount of vocal raggedness and the band hit the perfect tone. It’s a very very evocative song full of creepy, morbid imagery from The Black Rider and I think the live performance surpassed the recorded version on a couple of levels.
That happened throughout the night. And even when the performance of a particular song didn’t surpass the record, it at least presented it in a new and sometimes surprising light.
There were no banjos or intermittently crowing roosters on “Chocolate Jesus” but it was beyond cool watching him twist around and bellow it out while stomping on some kind of cymbal/bell contraption at his feet.
He strapped on a guitar for “Get Behind the Mule” and shook a pair of maracas on “Hoist That Rag” while his son Casey wailed on the drums. It was a huge crowd pleaser.
Maybe the most surprising re-invention came on “Eyeball Kid” He took the noisy, growling song and turned it into something much more melodic and donned the mirrored hat I had read about and turned around to give the audience a little light show while he conducted the band.
When he finally sat down at the piano, Larry Taylor brought his bass up close and things got more intimate. On “Invitation to the Blues,” one of my favorite of his early songs, he played it with only Taylor accompanying him. I imagine this was just like you would have heard it played in 1977. As if for added atmosphere, I could see smoke rising up through the lights. That had to be an effect, since the room was smoke free.
He led the audience choir director style on a sing-a-long with “Innocent When You Dream”. Everyone near me seemed to know all the words.
He closed his set with a rousing, throw out the stops version of “Make It Rain,” stretching his hands up, pleading with the sky and wailing like a mad man. It was a sound and image that’s probably going to stay with me a while.
After that he came out with a stunning, three song encore that was as full of surprises as the rest of the show. He came off like a demonic street preacher on “Jesus Gonna Be Here” stretching the words and plumbing the depths of his own soul on a bluesy gospel bender.
Then, for a jaw-dropping version of “Ninth & Hennepin” a single bare light bulb descended behind him on the stage. He extended the poem out, repeating lines, nearly turning a spoken word piece into something like an actual song. The crowd howled and applauded the line” “There’s nothing wrong with her that a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix”
He picked up an acoustic guitar and finished the night with a beautiful rendition of “Time.” It was the perfect end to an unbelievable show, quiet, pretty and sincere. The only thing missing was a cold drizzly night outside.
The only sour note came from the audience.. At one point I had to escape the heat, get some air and re-hydrate with a beverage. It was the point he sat down and played his first piano ballad, which I completely missed. It might have been “Whistle Down the Wind” but thanks to a couple scattered groups of highly vociferous assholes, I cant say for sure.
You’ve got to talk pretty loud to drown out a live band but this is
All in all, it was a truly unforgettable show, with songs stripped down to their bare essence and yet wildly theatrical at the same time. I have a whole new level of admiration for the man and his enormous talent. He’s the ultimate showman playing with the ultimate band and he manages to make it all look so easy.
Even on a Monday.
Here’s a nearly complete (with one exception) set list:
- Down in the Hole
- Anywhere I Lay My Head
- Chocolate Jesus
- Frank’s Wild Years
- Hoist That Rag
- Get Behind the Mule
- Such a Scream
- Eyeball Kid
- Invitation to the Blues
- Lost in the Harbor
- Innocent When You Dream
- 16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six
- Lie To Me
- Fannin Street
- Black Market Baby
- Misery is the River
- Make it Rain
- Jesus Gonna Be Here
- Ninth & Hennepin