Tom Waits: 2006 concert review

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in The Daily Southtown on August 21, 2006.

As Tom Waits and his musicians approached the Auditorium Theatre’s stage Wednesday night, their shadows loomed high on the curtains, like specters in a haunted house.

Even in the flesh and blood, Waits seemed supernatural. Twitchily gesturing with his outstretched fingers, Waits looked as if every hoarse note emerging from his throat required maximum exertion – the cords in his neck and the muscles in his face bulged with strain.

And what notes they were. Of course, skeptics will tell you that Waits can’t sing to save his life – or that his gravelly vocals are a gimmick. His singing is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but on Wednesday he once again showed that he’s a master at what he does, barking like a dog with a bad case of the blues and howling high notes like a forlorn feline.

Waits doesn’t come around very often, so this was a major event for his fans. His last Chicago concerts were in 1999, and the ones before that were in the late 1980s. And Chicago was lucky to get him on this tour, a quirky itinerary that skipped New York and Los Angeles while hitting more obscure towns like Asheville, N.C., and Akron, Ohio.

Maybe Waits has a soft spot for Chicago, though he said he was disappointed that the city’s Cows On Parade had disappeared since his last visit.

At one point, he reminisced about staying in a rundown hotel at Belmont and Sheffield. “The lady behind the counter was the mother of the Marlboro Man,” he noted, adding how disappointed he is when the colorful places he recalls from years ago have become generic and gentrified.

“Now you say, ‘9th and Hennepin’ to someone in Minneapolis, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, my wife got some sandals there.’ Sandals? I got shot there,” Waits cracked.

Waits, who’s famous for telling shaggy-dog stories and surreal jokes, was less talkative than he has been in the past. He didn’t linger very long at the piano, either, playing only two songs there – 1985’s “Tango Till They’re Sore” and 1976’s “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” which brought enthusiastic shouts and whistles of appreciation from the galleries.

For the most part, Waits was playing the role of blues-band front man, occasionally picking up a guitar but leaving most of the playing to his crack band, which included his son, Casey Waits, on drums.

The band stripped some of the junk-shop clatter from the songs off Waits’ most recent album, 2004’s “Real Gone,” making them sound more like lean blues songs. Performed in this context, they weren’t all that different from the seemingly more conventional songs Waits recorded in the late ’70s.

For his first encore, Waits played acoustic guitar for the first time all night, bringing a gentle touch to “Day After Tomorrow,” a song that closes “Real Gone” with lyrics about a soldier’s letter home.

Applause broke out as Waits sang: “You can’t deny the other side don’t want to die anymore than we do. What I’m trying to say is, don’t they pray to the same god that we do? And tell me, how does God choose? Whose prayers does he refuse?”

Waits came back for one more encore, closing with the wistful “Time” on acoustic guitar. And then, even though the crowd made an unholy racket of clapping and foot stomping, Waits was really gone.