Waits rolls out his eccentric genius in searing images


August 11, 2006


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.