[H]e hasn't performed in Akron, OH or Detroit since the '80s.
"We need to go to Tennessee to pick up some fireworks, and someone owes me money in Kentucky," says Waits about why he’s chosen this particular time and route to tour.
Why the Civic? Why not some larger venue, in Cleveland perhaps? (Waits did add a second post-Akron show in Cleveland at the House of Blues, which, judging by the time the Akron show actually finished, would have started around midnight if his patient fans were lucky). According to this article, written after the first stop on the tour,
"I know what you're thinking," he says. "What about having to wait in line to see you, Tom? Well, otherwise, you'd be paying $1,500 on eBay for tickets, right? But I was thinking of you. You can meet your wife here. You can meet someone else's wife here. And you can move forward slowly with them."
One thing the show itself can't be accused of is moving slowly. With a five-piece band in town, including his son Casey on drums and Duke Robillard on guitar, Waits kicked off with a burst of songs from his most recent albums, played at a frantic pace with no space in between — not even a "Hello, Akron!" (For more info on backing musicians and a detailed analysis of how Waits' team thwarted ticket scalpers, read this article about the Asheville show and the lengths Waits' management went to in order to make sure fans, and not scalpers, were able to get tickets).
Photo by Elston
Waits' stage persona, at least while dancing, is akin to an epileptic carny channeling Screamin' Jay Hawkins. (This is probably not the most charitable characterization, nor a sensitive one, as it was Screamin' Jay's cover of a Waits song that landed him in a European court to fight once again against a corporation misappropriating his work). But the man's full of kinetic energy, no doubt about it. He entered the stage after pausing to throw a shadow twenty feet up on the backstage curtain, then trotted to the front, arms outstretched, like Frankenstein or Donald Rumsfeld putting a voodoo whammy on the front row.
Without his trademark hat, you probably wouldn't recognize him at the gas station — you might even ask him to fill 'er up. But that's what's so brilliant about Tom Waits. You know the man's a genius, you just don't truly realize how much so until you watch him perform a slew of songs old and new for over two hours without a break. He switches effortlessly between the hard percussive style of more recent work (son Casey even beatboxes on one song) and the sentimental, drinks-on-a-piano music many associate with him. When roadies rolled a piano onstage halfway through, he began to engage the crowd, telling stories, responding to hecklers, graciously accepting what looked like a guayabera by thanking the person for 'returning' it: "And clean, too!"
The set list has varied wildly from show to show, judging from other reviewers' reports. In Akron, "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis" got a giant cheer, probably thanks to its reference to Euclid Avenue and 9th (a major intersection in downtown Cleveland). Funny, since there were more Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New York license plates parked outside the venue than you could count.
Post-piano interlude, Waits pulled out his own guitar and went to town with Duke Robillard on a series of blues-infused numbers. Though the show was absolutely brilliant, my one regret was no Ralph Carney — no horns at all, in fact. When the show was announced, I was having lunch with my father, a blues musician himself. Why Akron? I asked, and he pointed out Carney's early work with Waits. Although there was no horn section proper, there was an immense stack of megaphones on stage, which lay unused for this particular show.
They played two encores, including the beautifully poignant "Day After Tomorrow," Waits' first overtly political song, from Future Soundtrack for America, a compilation album supporting political change. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Neil Young. Waits is much more effective at getting his point across and making a good song in the deal. As for political songs in general, you could haul out the Waits/Muddy Waters quote: "Don't you know there ain't no devil, there's just God when he's drunk." Waits can not only tell you all about it, he may have been the one who bought God the first in a series of shots.