MEMPHIS — There was scarcely room for another porkpie hat or vintage dress in the gilded sold-out Orpheum Theatre when Tom Waits returned to Memphis last Friday night.
It’s a rare Waits tour, made all the more notable by the choice of eight midsized Southern and Midwestern cities. In a press quote, Waits explained he wanted to purchase fireworks in Tennessee and was owed money in Kentucky.
The marching opener “Singapore,” from 1985’s “Rain Dogs,” set the tone. It was several songs and Frankenstein poses in before Waits — himself clad in porkpie hat and dark jacket and pants — grabbed miked maracas and slowed the tempo. Later, he donned a guitar, worn as decoration for a song before played.
The set leaned heavily on Waits’ more recent material — “Get Behind the Mule,” “Make It Rain” and “Dead and Lovely.”
“Some people don¹t like the word ‘dead’ in a song,” Waits said of the latter. “All the more reason to put it in there. So many things rhyme with dead.” But all bones were received with equal, rabid enthusiasm.
Waits paid due homage to vocal kindred spirit Howlin’ Wolf and Wolf’s self-termed West Memphis sound in pre-concert music — and in performing Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talkin.’ ” Later, Waits interpolated Wolf’s “Spoonful” with his own 1980 romp, “Heartattack and Vine.”
Waits’ trademark megaphones were hardly used, although some gleamed tantalizingly onstage. Dramatic low spotlights nodded to the often theatrical nature of his songs, but it was Waits’ too-brief solo turn at the piano, doing the likes of 1976’s “An Invitation to the Blues” and the touching “House Where Nobody Lives” where he really shone.
Less successful were his longish carny barks and spoken pieces like “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today” from 1992’s Grammy-winning “Bone Machine.” “Murder in the Red Barn,” also from 1992, was done blues style, its customary banjo part abandoned, although banjo was used elsewhere in the set. During “Murder,” Waits introduced the band, including son Casey on drums, Duke Robillard on guitar and longtime collaborator Larry “the Mole” Taylor (Canned Heat) on standup bass.
After closing the set with “Goin’ Out West,” Waits opened his three-song encore with his sole acoustic guitar song — and a rare overtly political statement — the anti-war “Day After Tomorrow.”
The gushing audience seemed eager to impress the performer with shouted knowledge of obscure back catalog numbers, and with many in the sweaty throng not yet born the last time Waits passed through, it never settled down. The graying singer, born 1949 in Pomona, Calif., tweaked his latter-day popularity: “I’m disappointed that it took 20 minutes to sell out,” he joked. “I didn’t want to say anything.”
The world has changed since Waits’ “Nighthawks at the Diner” persona. He prefaced “Tango ’til They’re Sore” by saying, “It’s so hard to find a bad cup of coffee these days, I may have to start my own town.” So, too, has Waits changed, and like that coffee, he is bolder and richer — and a lot more expensive.
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