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Concert Review: Sold Out In Ten Minutes Without Selling Out – Tom Waits in Akron

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Tom Waits, Akron Civic, 13 August 2006:

[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.

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About Shannon Okey

  • Jack Kent

    I have to believe that my son (age 17 and a musician) was one of the youngest members of the audience in Akron on Sunday night. We drove out from Chester, NJ and I’m not sure what he expected but went along to please his dad (me). Well, I think it was about 10 seconds into the concert when I noticed a huge grin on my son’s face… Tom now has himself another huge fan. As for me, it was my first time attending a Waits concert. It was brilliant to say the least. Tom, if you read this, Thank You.

  • I don’t know, Jack — where we were sitting, there were quite a few younger people… which was GREAT, in my opinion!

  • Jack Kent

    Shannon, Thanks for your comment… I’m glad to hear that there were younger people there. How far did you travel to see the concert? I met a couple in my hotel that traveled from B.C. Canada.

  • Brian

    Nice article Shannon. FYI, the Cleveland show didn’t start until 1:30AM I was told, and ended around 3:30AM.

    In terms of the megaphones, I think they were used, they provided amplification to the percussion instruments behind them. About 10 minutes before Tom went on, a roadie was testing microphones and he bent down and tapped one in a megaphone.

    But some of them may have just been there for effect.

    Glad I was there!

  • ed markiewicz

    I’ve seen Tom Waits live 3 times in the 70’s. From solo at a small college, to small club, to the academy of music in Philadelphia with a streetcorner stage set. He came out for an encore and watched monday night football sitting in a chair on the side of the stage. The performance I saw in Akron was the best.

  • That’s impressive, Ed! (Although I thought the Akron show was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, period, I really wish I’d been at the Cleveland show, too… he played some of my favorite songs at that one). Can’t wait for the box set this fall!

  • Bill Frohnapfel

    This was the first time I saw Tom Waits perform,Wow I was blown away. Such a talented writer,musician,showman,and poet.The audience was very memorable that night also,part carnival,part fair,hell by the end of the night I felt like I was sitting around a hobo campfire.Tom cracked me up talking about the blimp going by when he “robbed his first gas station”,”killed his first endangered animal”. I’d also like to thank the person who returned my dropped ticket to the lost and found.Especially grateful because I was in the second row,And thanks to the guy from Detroit who bought me a shot of whiskey at the corner bar after the concert,I was the first guy from Akron that he met at the show. It was cool to hear his wife say that she was either laughing or crying at every song.Now I know why people traveled from all over to see Tom play,and next time I’m gonna do the same.

  • I saw him in Louisville and thought, it can’t get any better than this. Then my wife let me fly to Cleveland for the HOB midnight show that started at 1:25 a.m.; stood with my arms on the edge of the stage and saw THE SHOW OF MY LIFE.

  • Mark Saleski

    me and thewife got to see Waits in boston for the Mule Variations tour. from the opening “Jockey Full of Bourbon”, the show was relentless and amazing.

    i had a chance to score tickets for the second night but didn’t do it (i do believe the reason was stupidity).

    so i pick up the paper the next day to read a review of the second show….Waits came walking in from the back of the theatre with a big ‘ole bull horn, shouting “Ladies aaaand Gentlemen!!!” ….and they launched into “Lucky Day Overture” from The Black Rider.


  • landon

    get waits off the internet!