If the hallmark of a great songwriter lies in the ability to transport you into the places and the lives of the stories he tells, then Tom Waits has few equals.
A couple of weeks ago, I happened across a broadcast of Tom Waits Big Time concert on the cable network Ovation.
This is a brilliant concert movie that was filmed during Tom Waits tour behind the album Frank’s Wild Years. Here Waits is captured somewhere in between the down on his luck, gravelly-voiced skid row persona of his early years, and the brilliant, more multi-faceted music that was still to come. Big Time is one of those concert movies originally released on VHS, long since out of print, that is absolutely screaming out for a DVD release.
In the meantime, thank God for DVRs.
Anyway, seeing this concert sent me scrambling to ebay and all the usual places searching for a copy on DVD to no avail. But the search was not a complete loss, as I did discover that a rare Tom Waits concert DVD — though not from the same era — has in fact been recently released.
Romeo Bleeding: Live from Austin is a surprisingly well done DVD document from a concert that, at least best as I can surmise, was recorded during Tom Waits tour behind his brilliant 1976 album Small Change.
The very first time I saw Tom Waits in concert was on this very tour.
The promoters marketed it as a Small Change concert (clever, huh?) with a price of $2.98 a ticket. And I remember being absolutely transfixed by what I saw.
Waits, who sat behind a piano for most of the concert, was mainly backed by a small jazz trio. He chain smoked throughout the concert, and occasionally stepped out from behind his piano to tell these amazing stories about things like the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York, and characters like a guy named “Small Change,” who got “rained on with his own thirty eight.”
It was just amazing shit.
Afterwords, me and my friend met Tom Waits at the backstage door at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre. My buddy Dave — a hardcore Waits Fan — extended his hand and said “it’s an honor to meet you sir.” And Tom Waits, totally in character, simply replied, “no sir, the honor is all mine.”
Romeo Bleeding: Live from Austin is a better document of this period than it has any right to be. It begins with Waits chain-smoking behind a pair of Union 76 gas pumps, while a lone trumpet sounds the lonely notes of “Burma Shave.”
From there, Waits is usually behind the piano, croaking his way through the seedy backstreets of songs like “Romeo Is Bleeding” and “Christmas Cards From A Hooker In Minneapolis” (with a refrain of “Silent Night” thrown into the mix for good measure).
There are concerts, and there are concerts. But there are precious few artists that place you directly into the lives of the characters behind the stories they tell the way that Tom Waits does. As an artist, Waits has long since gone way beyond the skid row persona of his Small Change years. The audio and the video on this DVD — all things considered — are both surprisingly excellent.
And this DVD took me right back. Brilliant.