Tom Waits tour opener in Pheonix show review

[show review]

Tom Waits

6-17-08 (Tour’s Opening Night)
Orpheum Theatre
Phoenix, AZ

story and photos by Jim Steinfeldt

Tom Waits: Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Megaphone
Casey Waits: Drums
Seth Ford-Young: Bass
Omar Torrez: Guitar, Cigar Box Banjo
Patrick Warren: Keyboards
Vincent Henry: Sax, Clarinet, Harmonica


So spoke Mr. Waits and yet he did keep talking, to and with the audience and it helped make a great show a truly incredible one.

Waits told anecdotal stories about outdated laws in various cities throughout the country, from his perspective as a traveling musician:

“In Phoenix horses must wear diapers.”

“In Arizona a one armed piano player must perform for free.”

Waits’ ability as an actor became evident in much of his performance. His constant finger snapping conjured up the age of Cool Jazz and Beatniks. Bending down low while grasping the microphone stand and looking back at his band was reminiscent of James Brown. On one song Vincent Henry’s clarinet had strains of Klezmer music so Waits danced a sort of Yiddish jig. Later in the show Waits turns his back to the crowd and pretends to be “making out.”

Another highlight of the performance was Waits’ repeated stomping on the wooden floorboards of the ornate riser he stood on. When he’d stomp his foot, clouds of dust would come up, sometimes up to his knees and beyond. It reminded me of the cloud of dust that follows Linus around in the Charlie Brown comics? It gave the show a feel of being in an old tavern or vaudeville house (most appropriate here at the Orpheum). Later in the show Waits would add some humor by raising his foot to stomp again but then lower it slowly as if to say, “A-ha, you thought I was going to send up some more dust? Gotcha!”

It may have been over 100-degrees outside the theatre and plenty hot in the theatre but Waits performed in a shirt, vest, sport coat, baggy pants, giant work boots and bowler hat. He wiped his brow a lot.

As for his voice it was the Louis Armstrong on steroids his fans love. The Armstrong influence was especially evident on “Chocolate Jesus” when Waits sang through a megaphone.

Other song hi-lights included “Going Out West” with a beautiful harmonica part, “Murder At The Red Barn” where red lights washed the stage, “Cemetery Polka” where drum mallets were used to good effect and “Anywhere I Lay My Head” where the drummer played a xylophone. On “Eyeball Kid” Waits traded in his black bowler for a mirror covered bowler. When the spotlights hit his hat he became a disco ball. Towards the end of the show Waits played piano with just his bassist. The vibe reminded me of old Vaudeville like Clayton, Jackson and Durante. At one point Waits, who’s 58, said “I’m old,” remarking that he was that night at the beginning of a long tour. However when he sang “Picture In A Frame” and delivered the lyric ”I love you baby and always will” his face changed just for an instant and I saw a glint of the once young Tom Waits.

The lighting and set design were outstanding. It was truly one of the best I’ve seen and so appropriate for Waits’ music and persona.

The lights included red, blue, yellow and orange light boxes in various geometric forms placed around the stage. Waits, his band and their instruments were often lit to cast Shadows against the black backdrop reminiscent of films from the 1920’s ala Cab Calloway or later Count Basie. On Invitation To Blues, beautiful purple, red and white lights were used to great effect. In addition to the standard spotlights, a grouping of lights were attached to a circular tube about 10 feet over Waits’ head and even this rig was set at an angle to advance the expressionist feeling of the set.

As for the stage’s set it was quite unique with a collection of unusual vintage instruments but most noticeably a dozen or so horn speakers mounted from floor to ceiling in the center of the backdrop. Even the riser Waits stood on was rather ornate covered in brass, engraved with Moroccan sort of script.

The outstanding song of the evening was a beautiful rendition of “Innocent When You Dream”. Waits brought the audience with him and created a sing along. It was like being in an Irish pub or German beer hall. The song’s ending was very poignant and could have been a good way to end his main set before doing his encore.

The full band returned to the stage to do an encore. The excellent three-song encore that followed included Waits whistling and concluded with “Time” on which Wait’s classical guitar and an accordion mesh beautifully. Waits then said “Hey thank you and good night,” acknowledges his band with a wave of his hand, takes a bow to the audience and walks off.

Waits had commented that this was the first night of a long tour and indeed there were some opening night glitches. His gravel voice held out through the entire show until the last phrase he sung at which time he was holding his throat. During the song Get Behind The Mule his band wasn’t following him and he looked at them and gave them a sign to slow the tempo. On “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” the bass player didn’t jibe perfectly with Waits and Waits looked back at him to bring them in unison. This may have come about due to the security guard in the front row being on his walkie-talkie. Waits gave the guard a bit of a scolding. During another song a single old-fashioned light bulb was turned on, lowered just above Waits head while Waits tipped his bowler hat. But then the light went out for the rest of the song and sparks flew in the lighting rig. Also the ornate brass riser was adorned with small colored light bulbs but some of them weren’t turned on.

Nevertheless Waits lead his band like a conductor. All these opening night glitches were thoroughly overshadowed by a love for Waits by his audience. This appeared to be reciprocated by Waits. His continual banter with the audience was fun, funny and never ‘too much.’ He enjoyed getting the audience to clap along to at least one song and when there was a pregnant pause between songs Waits said to his band “Another one right away!”

Finally, at one point during the show Waits, who years ago hung out in Phoenix, asked the audience “Does Van Buren St. still have all those affordable hotels?”

Turns out it does and I stayed at one that night.


1 thought on “Tom Waits tour opener in Pheonix show review”

  1. there is amazing art, performance art, poetry and burlesque in this show. it is political commentary and highly entertaining. ive seen the show the last three years- if you havent been i strongly recommend it.

    by the way- there often is more art in sex work than “sex”…

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