Sunday, August 06, 2006
I Can Die Now. I Saw Tom Waits At The Ryman.
What can I say?
Last night's show was the perfect reward to sixteen years of waiting for Waits. Discovering the music of Tom Waits back in 1990 while working at Turtle's Records was the single greatest result of having worked at a record store. It was either Heartattack And Vine or Nighthawks At The Diner, and from there I was buying up his back catalogue and waiting with bated breath for upcoming releases - Bone Machine was my first new release purchase.
Anyway, here it is, the year 2006, and my day was made when the lovely Janet at Out The Other (her most recent show streams here) made the announcement that Tom Waits would be playing Nashville. I had missed him the last time he played my fair city as I was about three at the time. Within weeks, I was on vacation in a little beach town, logging onto Ticketmaster.com on my laptop in a hotel lobby. Clad in flip flops and shorts, other vacationers must have thought me to be a poor workaholic who just couldn't leave his work alone for a week. They didn't know that I was a rabid Raindog and my wife at my side was enabler to my addiction, reading the credit card number to me as I completed my transaction. Final result? August 5, Ryman Auditorium, Main Floor, Section 6, Row P, Seat 8. Confirmed.
Waiting for the show date was painful and beautiful. August 5 arrived and at 2:30 I picked up my ticket at will-call. Immediately, a couple behind me asked if I was from out-of-town like them. "Nope, I live here," I replied. I met a lot of people before the show and none of them were local. Buffalo Billiards on 2nd Ave was the official meeting place for show attendees and it was there that I met two cool guys from Dallas, an odd duck from Virginia, and another guy whose city I didn't get, but this was his third stop following Tom Waits around and as I recall, he had been sleeping in his car here and there.
Norway and England were represented by attendees as well. My English friend had seen Tom on the Raindogs tour and the man from Chicago sitting next to him had seen him on the last tour. I was in my element. Music fans all about, two hours of talking records and radio with the two guys from Dallas, and I really began to miss my record store days. If I could find the time, I would apply for a part time job at Tower Records just to get back to that.
But the concert.
The stage was set up simply with drums on the left, upright bass next, and keyboards and percussion on the right. Sitting somewhere in between was a small and odd assortment of items including a bullhorn. The curtain behind these creations was a warm and pale color. Shortly after 8:00 the lights dimmed and my goosebumps arrived. The band casually walked onto stage and took their spots - Casey Waits on drums, Larry Taylor on upright bass, Duke Robillard on guitar, and Brent Clausen handling all things percussion.
And then entered Tom. In appropriate reverence, all in the crowd stood and applauded. Dressed in basic work pants and jacket, Tom took the mic and growled my recent favorite, "Make It Rain." I wasn't watching a concert; I was watching theater. Animated and full of gestural intensity, Tom worked his artistry and gave a commanding and beautiful show.
Focusing not on any one part of his career but touching on all of his varied styles, he really gave the perfect performance. The thing that really will stay with me is how well the lighting was used. With blue lights from above and a white spotlight from below, every glance at his face was like a glimpse at a stirring photograph. And that spotlight from below cast the most enormous and spooky shadow of the entertainer onto the curtain behind him.
There on the curtain were shadows of the band members doing their thing, but towering higher at what seemed to be twenty feet tall was Tom's shadow. The shadows themselves seemed like a show of their own. Sitting in my pew a mere 16 rows from the stage, I half expected the shadows to take on lives of their own. I imagined that they were conversing with the shadows and ghosts of all who had played on that famous stage from so many decades of musical history. Surely, Tom's shadow and Hank Williams' ghost were off playing cards and sharing a bottle before night's end.
The instrument most notably absent from the stage was the piano. Tom's most recent album was his first where there was no piano at all. Was he forsaking the thing that accompanied him on so many wonderful songs over the years? With the help of a few good hands, about midway through the show, here came the piano. Enter stage right. And Tom took his seat, the band took a break, and he gave us "Tom Traubert's Blues." And my goosebumps were back. He followed that with "House Where Nobody Lives," a song that resonates with enormous sadness and beauty for me. A song or two later, he stepped away from the piano; the men were back, and he forcefully waved those 88 keys off of the stage, seemingly to much delight. Beautiful as it is, I think that is just damned tired of pianos.
My only criticism is really unwarranted. "Murder In The Red Barn" was reworked as if more of a Delta blues creation. It worked just fine and sounded great, but I just really love it the way he originally recorded it and was a bit disappointed not to hear it that way live. But that was easily remedied by playing the recorded version on my stereo at home the next morning. Small potatoes.
"What's He Building In There?" was a fine moment in the night. It's among my fave of his spoken word creations. And it gave the percussionist a great five minutes to gather from his assorted tools to find the perfect complements to the airy and spooky words of Mr. Waits' query. (If anyone remembers the exact quote Tom used to tease Mr. Clausen, let me know. It was hilarious but the exact wording escapes me right now.)
[Edit to add: I just remembered that he humorously referred to the Mr. Clausen as "an overzealous percussionist."]
The show was unrivaled by any I had ever seen. His beautiful presence and artistry were at top form and way worth sixteen years of waiting. His encore, "Day After Tomorrow" stayed with me my whole way home after the show. Typing that now, and listening to it while I think about its words, still resonates in a way to put me miles from drudgery and heart to heart with the power of honest expression.
Thanks to Tom Waits for all that he has done over the years. Ask me in twenty years what Tom Waits means to me and I'll tell you that back in 2006 I saw him at the Ryman Auditorium and it remains my favorite show ever.
[Follow the tour info online at The Eyeball Kid. It's got the setlists - and I lifted this post's picture from there.]