He came to the stage from the back of the room, strutting down the aisle of the Wiltern Theatre like a misplaced heavyweight champ. A spotlight illuminated the way. Screeching into a megaphone, he was part carnival barker, part Muhammad Ali and part Rev. Jim from "Taxi." He left the stage more than two hours later amid rafter-rattling applause, the winner and still champion.
Making a rare concert appearance in his once-native Los Angeles, Tom Waits wasted no time taking control of his long-awaited return with the first song, "The Black Rider." (Waits has played in L.A. once in the previous 12 years; his last engagement at this theater, over a decade ago, was immortalized in the concert film "Big Time.") Wearing a rumpled black linen suit over a black and orange striped T-shirt and a dusty fedora that made him look like a cross between a Bowery Boy and Freddy Kreuger, Waits exhibited no rust from his prolonged absence. He stood at the front of the stage, flailing his arms and legs to the baroque strains of "Singapore" while the awe-struck audience slowly adjusted to the reality that it was, in fact, really seeing Tom Waits play live. Though he did provide a few nuggets spanning his 26-year recording career, the bulk of the set featured songs from his recently released album, "Mule Variations," and "Bone Machine" (1992). The reverent crowd was not about to quibble with any of Waits' choices, and instead hung on every word the man growled in his throaty rasp.
Tom Waits is no longer merely a singer or an entertainer. As unlikely as it might seem, he's something of an American icon, even if he's largely unknown on commercial radio. By combining Tin Pan Alley song craft and near-vaudevillian showmanship with downtown boho artiness and a bang-on-anything-in-sight approach to instrumentation, his sound and style are signature. The scarcity of his performances helps add to his mystique, making a night like this one feel like a memorable, important cultural event rather than just an entertaining Saturday night out on the town.
Recent songs have traded the Bukowski-esque tales of seedy urban night life for tales of rural domestic bliss without forsaking any of the charm or quirkiness that first brought him renown in the early '70s. Though old standbys like "Jockey Full of Bourbon," "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six" and the rousing sing-along "Innocent When You Dream" were enthusiastically received, it was actually some of the newer songs that provided some of the night's highlights. My friend Sara broke down crying during a hushed rendition of the single "Hold On." "What's He Building?" -- the resident oddball spoken-word piece on "Mule Variations" -- was transformed into an extended performance art/stand-up comedy routine. And "Come on up to the House" made me want to get married and move to the middle of nowhere.
Nearly as entertaining as the songs themselves was the folksy and often hilarious between-song banter, perhaps more suited to a smoky piano bar than an ornate, cavernous theater. Some of the shtick was just that, leaving little doubt that some of these one-liners were going to reappear in the next night's show and the show after that. He regaled the crowd with stories about a gun and ammo shop that sells espresso, and his father-in-law's invention: a religious candy called "Testamints." The rapport didn't feel forced or hokey, and the show as a whole was oddly intimate, the sort of well-rounded and fulfilling concert-going experience that comes around all too infrequently.
Waits' commanding stage presence owes much to his impressively tight four-piece backing band, featuring Smokey Hormel (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass and guitar), Andrew Borger (drums and percussion) and Dan McGough (keyboards). Together, the group careened seamlessly from the percussive racket of songs like "Filipino Box Spring Hog" to whisper-soft numbers like "Who Are You." After finishing the cacophonous "Big in Japan," Waits returned in troubadour mode, closing with a beautiful version of the poignant ballad "The Heart of Saturday Night." Doffing his hat a final time, Waits exited the stage, leaving several hundred people hoping that it wouldn't be another 10 years before he comes back.