Saturday, June 28, 2008

Concert Review: Tom Waits at the Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO, June 26, 2008

It's an understatement to say that expectations were high and the crowd was madly eager for Tom Waits' St. Louis show at the Fox Theatre on Thursday night. Playing St. Louis for the first time since the mid 1970s (and not, as one snide person commented to me, for the first time since the American Civil War), Waits and his excellent backing band delivered a performance that made it well worth the, er, wait.

By now the Waits stage persona has been written about and described to death: the odd twitches and gestures, the stomping and hollering, and the overall theatrical/carnival barker qualities that are impossible to miss, and that Waits himself has been willing to embellish and exaggerate over the years. Still, those descriptions don't adequately reflect what it's like to see Waits live on stage. A day after the concert, with a slight and bizarrely enjoyable ringing still in my ears, I suspect I'm not the only fan or critic struggling to suitably describe what a tremendous show this was.

I've long thought that the main reason people attend concerts is because they want to participate in a communal experience and walk away from the show with a few lasting musical memories. Well, ok, I've actually maintained that the primary reasons people attend concerts are to get shitfaced and/or stoned, drunkenly request "Freebird" at the most inappropriate point in the evening, get a night away from the brats (sorry, children), or behave like inmates freshly escaped from the mental ward. And after all that, people attend live performances for the communal experience and the memories.

If that's true, Waits and the band didn't disappoint. In a set that ran a little over two hours (and even then felt far too short), what was perhaps most noticeable was Waits' ability to convey a song's themes and moods in a live setting. In this way, Waits could somehow go from the slow and beautiful solider song "Day After Tomorrow" to the hilariously demented "Cemetery Polka" without the contrasts seeming forced or out of place. Waits' stage movements were clearly at least partly choreographed; even when glitter rained down on him during "Make It Rain," it somehow managed to fit into the mood onstage.

One of the show's most memorable portions found Waits playing several songs at the piano, with minimal instrumental accompaniment. "Hang Down Your Head" was followed by "A Little Rain" for a wonderful duo of grand weepers. A Waits solo piano tour in the near future would be nice...

The band's (Casey Waits, Patrick Warren, Seth Ford-Young, Vincent Henry, and Omar Torrez) ability to provide new textures to the songs was also noticeable. Several of the songs performed were markedly different than their album counterparts. "Black Market Baby" and "Lie To Me" bore little resemblance to their album versions, and benefited nicely from the reworked musical arrangements.

The crowd was clearly appreciative of the effort, with wild applause and hollers throughout the night that sometimes came at odd times (you don't need to scream in orgasmic joy after every refrain). There were also some other bizarre moments. One fan shouted for "Johnsburg, IL" about 20 minutes after it had been performed; that guy's probably currently nursing a massive hangover and racking his addled brain to remember anything about the show. Another male fan shouted on a couple occasions that he wanted to have Waits' children (see buddy, the way it works is that...).

Worst of all, there were a couple altercations in the Fox's plush velvet seats. During "Lucky Day," a handful of angry Rain Dogs approached a couple engaged in conversation and rather forcefully "suggested" that they be quiet. Waits himself seemed aware of the ruckus, or the frequent and obnoxious shouts and bloodthirsty screams, joking later that the audience hadn't worked together before and needed an elected official to maintain order, describing it as (my faltering memory notwithstanding) "mass pandemonium."

It was as close to perfect as a live performance could be. It took over 30 years for Tom Waits to come back to St. Louis (though to be fair, many fans at the show weren't even on this mortal coil in 1974, myself included). All around, it was a wonderful show where the audience's expectations were exceeded by a truly memorable performance.

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