Tom Waits – Live, Edinburgh Playhouse, Sunday 27th July 2008
What a rubbish gig this wa… ah-haha! No it wasn’t, it was fucking brilliant, of course it was. I’ve seen Tom Waits once before, almost by accident, in about 1999 in the Orpheum Theatre in Boston and he was inspired. Songs like The Earth Died Screaming lurched and howled around you as if they’d been summoned from the very depths of hell, and when he then sat down to play a little more whimsically and romantically on the piano by himself the contrast was unnerving. Genius, it was. Consequently when he played London about five years ago, having missed out on a ticket by legitimate means, I stared at a £450 Buy It Now button on eBay for nearly an hour a day for the whole week preceding the gig, knowing I couldn’t afford it and nevertheless thinking that maybe, just maybe, I might somehow get away with it.
Fortunately, for once in my life I showed a modicum of restraint and am hence not bankrupt as I type this, but fuck me there was no way I was missing out on this chance even if I had to wrestle a kingpin from the international trade in black market internal organs to get a ticket.
There’s something surreal about sitting in a gig like this, the attendance at which is to all intents and purposes an act of pilgrimage. It means you aren’t just sitting and enjoying the music, it means you are basking in the occasion – it’s a Tom fucking Waits show. Tom Waits! We were so excited that all the other people vaguely affiliated with this website who went along – Martin from The Savings & Loan, funnyguytom, (Quiet) Jon, Scott from Uhersky Brod and his girlfriend Clare, Euan from The Kays Lavelle and Trampoline, and his wife Pamela, my friends Morgan (who took these amazing pictures, naughty boy that he is) and Alan, my Dad and myself (and this was just Sunday: half of Broken Records, Mrs. Toad and Mother Toad, a couple of guys from work and a few others are going tonight) – played the Tom Waits challenge. We all wrote down fifteen songs we thought might be on the setlist, chipped in a pound, and the winner took the pot. Given Waits’ prodigious back catalogue the winner could well have had only a handful of songs right, but as it was Quiet Jon took the honours with a very respectable seven. So it wasn’t just a gig, this was a rare moment for hushed and awestruck reverence. He could have come and played Nintendo on stage for an hour and a half and I think we’d probably still have absolutely loved it.
I’ve heard talk recently of the latest Tom Waits tour being the grown up one – the one where he finally shelved the manic spasms and simply performed his best songs with panache and verve and stopped acting the fool. This wasn’t far from the truth last night, judging by that one performance. The meandering clarinet variation on Cemetary Polka, the gorgeous restraint of Invitation to the Blues, the manageable eccentricity of songs like Jesus Gonna Be Here and I’ll Shoot the Moon – it all highlights the fact that he is no longer throwing down a direct gauntlet to his audience, and possibly to himself, by pushing the bounds of what counts as music to breaking point. He has done this in the past – just think back to the madness of the Big Time movie, or listen to a few live bootlegs.
So what kind of a set was this then? It was a brilliant one where the deft and well-practised mid-song digressions were masterfully delivered. Where the re-workings of the old classics were so well done that you caught yourself wondering whether they shouldn’t perhaps always have been that way. For the most part things were delivered straight up by an incredibly tight, pretty trimmed down band, and the musicianship on display was truly superb – two saxophones at once? What?
If I were to pick on one small point though, it would be this: I kind of missed the real peaks of madness he has treated us to in the past – the antisocially eccentric clashes, squawks, shrieks, crashes and whistles that make people listen to albums like Bone Machine and visibly recoil, asking themselves what the fuck that cacophony is supposed to be. Some of the songs on the setlist were some of his more feral, and it would have been nice to see him attack these like a man possessed, like he has in the past. But, you know, that’s a churlish complaint, really, for a man in his sixties who can deliver as amazing a night as the one we just enjoyed. It was a beautifully arranged journey through the work of the man I consider to be pretty much the all-time pinnacle of the musical profession.
Sitting there as the hall sang along to Innocent When You Dream was a magical moment. Him ending his show with All the World is Green – a song I will forever associate with those heady days at the beginning of my relationship with Mrs. Toad, when I was so giddy with excitement I could hardly see straight – was a magical experience. Listening to him digress into discussion of obscure laws that still exist in certain places (“It’s illegal to get a fish drunk. They’ve ruined everything.”) was phenomenal. Watching him stamp and lurch his way through Raindogs and Cemetary Polka was amazing. Watching him snarl his way through Falling Down, reclaiming it from that scrotum-shrivellingly dismal vanity project of Scarlett Johansson’s, was triumphant. Hang Down Your Head was just breathtakingly gorgeous.
I think I need a sit down and a long glass of water. I may not regain composure for weeks. The elated gloating may not subside for months.
Here’s the setlist, lifted from this blog, with download links to the ones I guessed right.
Lucinda/Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well
On the Other Side of the World
I’ll Shoot the Moon
Get Behind the Mule
Cold Call Ground
Circus / Table Top Joe
Jesus Gonna be Here
Picture in a Frame
Invitation to the Blues
House Where Nobody Lives
Innocent When You Dream
Lie to Me
Hoist That Rag
Bottom of the World
Hang Down Your Head
Way Down in the Hole
Dirt in the Ground
Make it Rain
(I was doing miserably badly at this point, but fortunately I aced the encore, to restore just a little dignity.)
Goin’ Out West
All the World is Green