Tom Waits is that rarest breed of artists who occupies a place that is truly unique in all of music. Early on in his career, Waits was known primarily as the guy who wrote all those great songs for laid back seventies "mellow-rock" artists from California like the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.
No less than Bruce Springsteen also made a Waits composition his own, with "Jersey Girl" (which is a staple whenever the Boss plays shows in his home state), and even Bob Dylan has been compared to Waits with the ragged vocal tone (or "the Croak"), he has taken on with his most recent albums.
That same croak has become what people have come to know Waits best by over the years, for going on at least three decades now. It dates back at least as far as mid-seventies albums like Small Change and the classic Nighthawks At The Diner live set (which was recorded with a small jazz trio).
From there, Waits adopted numerous variations of the down-on-his-luck vagabond drifter persona he brings to life with his songs in a way few others can match. He's taken on the role of everything from carnival barker to bohemian beat-poet, to seedy piano-bar lounge singer. There was even a period for awhile there in the nineties when he turned the Euro-noir of Bertoldt Brecht on its ear.
The common thread running through most all of Waits' songs though is his embrace of the dregs of society's seedier underbelly.
With that unmistakable voice — it can best be described as the result of far too many nights of cheap, rot-gut whiskey and cigarettes — Waits has that part down to a science. From the guy eating his "Eggs And Sausage" on Nighthawks to the grifters hawking their wares on the corner of Heartattack And Vine, no one sounds quite like him.
He's an acquired taste to be sure. But what those in the know will also tell you, is that Tom Waits applies a cinematographer's sweep to his songs like nobody outside of maybe Springsteen or Dylan (both of whom have been influenced by him, as we've already discussed).
What you don't hear nearly as often though, is just how mesmerizing a live performer Tom Waits is. Personally, I've seen him twice — on the tours behind Small Change (where he played with a small jazz trio) and Blue Valentine (with a larger five piece band), and was absolutely spellbound by both performances.
Waits also picks great musicians for his bands without fail. On his one official concert movie, Big Time for example, the band was led by the great guitarist Marc Ribot (and if anyone knows how to get a DVD copy of that show, please e-mail me post haste — I promise I'll make it worth your while).
So anytime Tom Waits puts out a live recording, it's a rare treat and the new double-disc Glitter And Doom Live is no exception. My only complaint here is that I wish there was a DVD version available, as Waits' concerts tend to be as much a great visual experience as a musical one.
As always, Waits has assembled a great band here, which is a seven piece ensemble this time around. It's highlighted by another great guitarist (Omar Torez), upright bassist Seth Ford-Young, and keyboardist Patrick Warren (who tackles everything from reed organ and vibes to mellotron).
As for the music — recorded during stops on Waits' 2008 sold-out tours of America and Europe — this is some dark, swampy sounding shit, that's as thick and murky as a spicy Louisiana Gumbo. There are elements of everything from the torchy lounge-jazz you might hear round' closing time at some dive bar, to thick sounding Missisippi Delta Blues (the Harp driven "Get Behind The Mule").
In between, Waits touches on everything from the boozy sea shanty of "Singapore," to the Swamp-rock of "Goin' Out West" (think Bayou Country-era John Fogerty), to even a funeral dirge on "Dirt In The Ground." As always, the songs are also populated by seedy characters like the guy who begins his journey in the "sewers of Paris" on "Singapore," to the opium dealer "William The Pleaser" (on the album opening "Lucinda/Aint' Goin' Down").
On the second disc, you get nearly forty minutes of "Tom's Tales," which are the quirky (and quite humorous) stories Waits tells from behind the piano at most of his shows. I won't spoil any of those here, except of course to say that Tom's apparently discovered e-bay. Don't miss it.
Tom Waits' Glitter And Doom Live comes out this Tuesday, November 24.