Last Night: Tom Waits at the Palladium Ballroom

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Tom Waits Palladium Ballroom June 23, 2008

Better than: Waiting out the post-show traffic.

It was hot as balls, there was no opening act, the crowd was filled with braying jackasses and a single ticket cost ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS. So was An Evening With Tom Waits on his Glitter and Doom tour worth it?

Well, it was, of course, an opportunity to witness a true living legend. Tom Waits has written--and still writes--some of the most beautiful songs of our time. He can create an unforgettably strange, pathetic or hilarious character and drape him or her with a melody that fits perfectly, whether it’s eased out of a grand piano or honked from a baritone sax, and the influence of his clamorous arrangements is far more widespread than his record sales would suggest.

But more than just being the occasion to check “See Tom Waits” off my bucket list, it was fun. He shook and flailed about, holding the microphone like a lifeline. He sang “Chocolate Jesus” through a bullhorn and, at one point, donned a mirror-encrusted derby hat that reflected beams of light through the smoke like a disco ball. Between songs, he told bad jokes and bullshitted about buying Henry Ford’s dying breath on eBay. He also had a witty but not unkind response to every idiot who screamed a song request or “I love you Tom!” In fact, he was such a convivial raconteur that I genuinely didn’t mind hearing the same bit about arcane Texas laws that I’d heard on a live bootleg recorded years ago.

While some of his stage banter may have been canned, the music was anything but. Accompanied by a crack, five-piece band, Waits reinvigorated older songs with updated arrangements without rendering them unrecognizable. The most dramatic reinterpretation of the night was the gospel/Dixieland makeover of the apocalyptic Bone Machine blues of “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” For newer material, like Orphans’ “Lie to Me,” the band stretched out songs to trade solos between Waits’ growls and yelps. The versatile Omar Torrez added Spanish-style guitar solos and Italian-folk mandolin runs without stepping on Waits’ toes or overstaying his welcome. Vincent Henry was especially impressive, providing those essential saxophone blats and grimy blues harp riffs. Along with sprucing up the music, Waits occasionally played with the words, like adding the observation that “alcohol and gasoline is a terrible combination” to “Frank’s Wild Years.” He encouraged a singalong during the final chorus of “Innocent When You Dream.” Off-pitch as we sounded in my section, he beamed, pleased what he heard. “Beautiful,” he said.

Not everything about last night was beautiful. It was steamy, overpriced and Waits’ vocals could have been louder. But when the final notes of “Time” faded away, I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. So yeah, for a die-hard fan at least, it was worth it. --Jesse Hughey

Random note: Apparently beer sales were supposed to be shut off as soon as Tom went on stage, but I overheard someone share a conversation they'd had with a bartender; when ased if they were really shutting down bar sales during Tom's set, the bartender replied, "Only at the bars Tom can see."

By the way: You won't see photos of last night's show. Photographers weren't allowed in the Palladium last night.

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