Friday, November 13, 2009

Tom Waits - Glitter and Doom Live

Take a moment to ponder Tom Waits' career. From his beginnings as a cult star performing an almost burlesque interpretation of modern beat poetry, he has slowly and ineffably moved to a consistently more artful, personal and modern sound, all the while refining (with the help of his writing partner, Wife, Kathleen Brennan) his songwriting away from tales of a drunken carny-like existence on the edges of hipster society to the thoughtful insights of a dedicated and caring family man and artist. His music is groundbreaking on so many levels. He is one of the few artists I can think of whose work not only defies time and categorization, but continues to define the forward movement of modern sound. He is alone in his previous accomplishments and equally alone in his ability to invent the future. I have not met an artist, musician or generally cool person who doesn’t like Tom Waits. At the same time, I have met very few non-music nuts who even know who he is. He has not penetrated modern consciousness except as a catalyst or seed for others to grow from, offering up a model for the artistic ideal. Because of this, new releases by Waits are greeted with an increasing fervor by those in the know. One can always be assured an unexpected and gratifying experience.

His latest is sure to be no exception. The musical soundscape is stunning throughout this document of Waits’ latest tour which focused almost exclusively on his last four or five releases. Shifting from sly jazzy shuffles to industrial skrapes and explosions and back again at the drop of a hat, the sonic ground beneath Waits’ feet never gathers moss. Much of the sound is seemingly new. How in this wide wide world of copycats and sampling does someone come up with something that sounds like it has never been done before? Partially by using found instruments and an array of electronic vocal treatments, but also by shrugging off the conventional strictures of all popular music and just creating. Lots of artists “just create” freely in what has been called The Avant Garde, unfortunately most of it comes out sounding like cacophonous shit instead of the poetry of Tom Waits.

Vocally, Waits has taken what might have been thought of as a liability-his gargling with barbed-wire and rat poison rasp of a voice- and turned it into the most interesting part of the show. He inhabits several distinctive personae during the course of a performance, alternately barking like some deranged street corner preacher, to roaring like an electronic beast from a Orwellian nightmare, to the pained croon of some injured beast in the distance. Each is also matched by a physical manifestation. I saw Waits early in his career when his act basically consisted of him sitting at the piano and winning the audience over with the strength of his imagery. Somewhere along the line, he developed into an unbelievably physical performer, presenting an onstage demeanor that falls between circus barker and Tourette’s victim. A Tom Waits concert is unlike any other experience, and it is one of the few generally interesting and exciting shows left to see.

As a bonus this album comes with a second disc called “Tom Tales” that will be instantly recognizable and welcomed by anyone who has seen Waits perform. Between songs he tends to launch into dissertations and rambling speeches about the things that occupy his mind. Often little known facts from the back pages of obscure referentiania, these observations are always entertaining, and sometimes quite enlightening. It is another facet of the man, the artist, the enigma: Tom Waits. -- Paul Epstein

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