If you ’re going to travel to a different world, it makes sense to have a tour guide. For almost three hours last Wednesday night at the Ratcellar Theatre in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, Tom Waits was that guide, granting 3,500 people access to his own private universe, a fantastical carnival-esque land, filled with strange wonders and delights.
Although Waits remains perhaps best known for songs like Downtown Train and Martha, it’s been a long time since that was the kind of material in which he was most interested. Waits got strange on 1983’s Swordfishtrombones.
Over the past decades he’s got even stranger, turning himself into the kind of primitivist human beatbox that the Beastie Boys should envy.
Aided by a virtuoso five-piece band, Waits, 58, didn’t just sing. Instead, he hissed, huffed, yelped, sputtered, whispered and growled into the microphone. Many songs found their focus not in the melody, but in the intense, eccentric rhythms that Waits, aided by his son Casey on drums and percussion, located.
Baltic airs; sinuous funk; foot-tapping blues; jazz jams; aurally, it was both bananas and utterly brilliant.
Visually, it was equally transfixing. Stood atop a wooden platform, Waits – ever the stage hobo – would lift his besuited leg up, then – whoosh! – send it flying down onto the box, sending up huge plumes of beautiful, theatrical dust.
His every movement was perfectly calibrated – as he twisted, contorted and stretched over to plink the piano, you thought of mime artists such as Marcel Marceau.
‘‘In Dublin you can no longer make a monkey smoke a cigarette,” Waits rasped, as he settled at the piano proper, his jacket turned a darker shade of grey by sweat. ‘‘I used to come over here just for that.”
You would want to have been at this gig just for the laugh-out-loud spoken word material; with stories about frogs in his stomach (‘‘I saw no reason to evict them’’), lost luggage and his addiction to Ebay, Waits – the son of two schoolteachers – yakked like we were in his front room and he was telling tall tales round the fireplace.
Ultimately, it was Waits’s more conventional songwriting gifts that made this gig truly special.
On songs like Falling Down, Tom Traubert’s Blues, Get Behind the Mule, Make it Rain and Time, Waits moved from the remarkable into the transcendent, rendering a whole gamut of emotions from loss to solace to love.
PS For more reviews, see here: https://nadineoregan.wordpress.com/2008/07/31/tom-waits/#comments
And for a Waits concert, see here: http://wordpress.hotpress.com/petermurphy/2008/08/05/weird-scenes-inside-the-online-goldmine/