The Tom Waits that garnered a devout following in the mid ‘70s was a streetwise beatnick; a dark romantic that fashioned jazz, blues and off-beat poetry into songs of soul and sleaze. But at age 58, the Waits that took the stage at Columbus’ Ohio Theatre on Saturday – the closest the songsmith will play to Kentucky on his abbreviated Glitter and Doom Tour this summer – was a vaudevillian through and through. He communicated almost as much by cocking his black bowler down over his forehead and strutting about like a hip rooster as he did with his songs. Almost.
With a repertoire that dropped his ‘70s catalog entirely (nothing was performed that pre-dated 1983’s Swordfishtrombones album), Waits moved to more mercurial themes, deeper ensemble grooves and more cunning humor. For the capacity crowd (the show sold out within minutes of going on sale in May), that game plan worked quite nicely indeed.
On a stage where clumps of antique, horn-shaped speakers hung like grapes, Waits opened with the jagged, raspy Orphans confessional Lucinda (fortified for the occasion with a few spiritual refrains from Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well). As a five member band (including the singer’s son, Casey Waits, on drums) gave rise to the rhythm, Waits stood centerstage like a scarecrow before emphasizing a brutish, foot-stomping beat that kicked up quite a bit of dust – literally. Each time Waits hammered his heel on the floor to the devilish rhythm, powder rose up around him. Perhaps it was glitter and doom all rolled into one.
The program’s instrumentation was just as clever. Banjo and harmonica supported Waits as he sang through a bullhorn on Chocolate Jesus while the singer again put his feet to work by kicking a stage floor bell as though a prize fight was commencing on the still savage 16 Shells from a Thirty Ought Six.
And then, of course, there was Waits the humorist. While there was nothing this night to match the truly demented dog biscuit saga he told in Louisville in 2006, Waits did offer observations on supposed centuries-old laws still on the books in Oklahoma, where he played the previous week. “For example, you can’t eat in a restaurant that’s on fire,” Waits said in a weathered voice that eerily approximated someone afflicted with emphysema. “That kind of limited our choices.”
In the end, though, the concert was at its peak when the strange, inventive heart of Waits’ performance skills met the even more obtuse narratives of his songs. An ideal example: 1999’s Eyeball Kid, a freak show parable seemingly tailor made for the performance. Here the singer donned a bowler encrusted with broken glass and slowly but purposely twirled to create the full theatrical effect of a human mirror ball in motion.
There were scores of other delights, too, including the judgment day fervor of Jesus Gonna Be Here, the barroom-style audience sing-a-long on Innocent When You Dream and a reconstructed Big in Japan, also sung through a bullhorn, that moved to a funky, juke joint groove.
The pageantry of the Ohio Theatre, a gorgeous, 80 year old Spanish Baroque movie house that seats 3,000, completed the carnival atmosphere. But even the majestic setting was modest compared to the incantations the wiry man with the coarse voice and black bowler summoned onstage.