A lot can change in seven years: A person can become barely recognizable as
his former self, and so can a city.
At one point during his generous, more
than two-hour show Wednesday night at a sold-out Auditorium Theatre, Tom
Waits riffed on the long-gone fleabag hotel where he stayed during his first
visit to Chicago, under the L at Belmont and Sheffield -- a neighborhood
that was gentrified even before his last gig here in 1999. But that wasn't
the change that bothered the 56-year-old singer and songwriter the most.
"Here's the deal: What happened to the cows?" Waits rasped. "Was there a
board meeting I wasn't informed about?"
It's a shame that Waits doesn't tour more often -- "You don't want to
oversaturate the market," he told the crowd last weekend in Nashville,
Tenn., which he hadn't visited in three decades -- because he's a performer
who is best appreciated live, especially at this stage in his career. Even
the slightest material from his recent albums takes on new dimensions as he
channels the eccentric and sometimes threatening characters that populate
his tunes, using subtle shifts in his baritone grumble and striking
flamboyant poses that evoke the movements of a spastic puppeteer.
Performing in front of a minimal stage set that nevertheless evoked a
sprawling junkyard, Waits fronted an extraordinary six-piece band that
included his son Casey on drums, Larry Taylor on upright bass, Bent Clausen
on keyboards and vibes and Duke Robillard on guitar. But the set was heavy
on fractured, art-damaged blues -- a sound that his under-heralded influence
Captain Beefheart always did better -- at the expense of the wider sonic
palette the band was capable of employing.
Waits rarely breaks character when he performs: He's the genius
philosopher who happens to be living as a Skid Row alcoholic, equally prone
to poetry or murder. It's a persona his fans adore, and some even came
dressed as their hero. The problem is that through the first half of his
career and on his best albums -- "Swordfishtrombones" (1983), "Heartattack
and Vine" (1980), "Small Change" (1976) -- Waits also gave us other
characters that were even more intriguing and artistically rewarding,
especially the understated but brilliant barroom balladeer.
We heard far too little of that Waits on Wednesday, though it was great
when we did. The artist sat at a half-size grand piano to perform a riveting
version of "Tom Traubert's Blues," which would seem like a classic and
timeless song even if it didn't incorporate bits of "Waltzing Matilda," and
he unveiled "Time" during his second encore. But much of the set
concentrated on his last four albums and his regrettable tendency of late to
veer toward shtick.
Tom warned us of unspeakable horrors in "Don't Go Into That Barn,"
speculated about unnameable sins in "What's He Building in There" and hinted
at unimaginable gore in "Murder in the Red Barn." And the act got old. Like
the overrated M. Night Shyamalan of "The Village" and "Lady in the Water,"
you were so sick of all the buildup that by the time you saw the actual
monster, you couldn't help being a bit weary.
With its frantic roars of "lie to me, baby," Waits' cover of the
great Howlin' Wolf's "Who's Been Talking" was a lot scarier and more
effective than all the other horror-movie silliness. Along with "Tom
Traubert's Blues," it was one of the stellar moments in a show that was
otherwise merely pretty good -- which would be easier to accept if we
thought we might have the chance to see the singer again before 2013.