Tom Waits

Tom Waits

Paramount Theatre • Saturday, March 20

Let me be perfectly frank from the beginning: I had no desire to see Tom Waits’ concert. I realize that this statement by itself is rather caustic, but the blasphemy gets worse. I gave away the free ticket that I received due to my South by Southwest badge. Someone who was with our contingent got up at 7 a.m. just to wait in line to get a ticket to this special concert, while I walked right up late in the day as an afterthought and gave my ticket with no remorse to a friend with no badge.

The interesting thing about the whole Tom Waits mania was the way that the normally unflappable industry types were buzzing about it. They were the ones acting like teens in line for an ‘N Sync show. It was actually fairly refreshing to see so many industry people excited about a show — ostensibly, it should have been this sort of excitement that got them into the music industry in the first place.

There were plenty of non-industry fans trying to get tickets as well. Reportedly, people were offering $200 for tickets to the concert, which was held in a venue that I heard only seated 1200. Half of these seats were available to the public. The auction-styled atmosphere even caused one fan to verbally spar with Waits, but more on that in a moment.

So why was it so crazed? For one thing, this was only the fourth Waits’ concert — aside from a handful of benefits — in 12 years. He hasn’t toured since the fall of 1987. As influential and well-regarded as he is, the electricity makes a little more sense in light of his infrequent shows.

The concert took place in the Paramount Theatre, a gorgeous old two-tiered vaudeville styled theater on one of the main downtown Austin drags. It was a surprisingly intimate but raucous affair in a setting that couldn’t have been any more perfect for an artist such as Waits.

To be honest again, I shouldn’t have known even this much. While waiting for my friend to exit the show, I was convinced by some friends who had to leave that any amount of the show was well worth seeing. It did beat standing outside, and my curiosity was piqued, so I agreed to catch a glimpse.

Waits performed with a backup band that played the standard singer/songwriter/rocker instruments — drums, piano, guitar, bass. The focus, of course, was squarely on Waits and his trademark raspy, gravelly vocal style that sounds like me after too many whiskey sours and cigarettes.

It’s one of those vocal styles that is too overwhelming for blasé acceptance. Much like the deliveries of Ani DiFranco, Peter Garrett (Midnight Oil) or Bob Dylan, you either love their intonations or hate them, cringe or swoon. Yes, it is possible to go beyond the voices, but only after you’ve faced them head on and decided where you stand.

Waits deftly switched between musical styles, from a smoky blues beat to more of a jazz standard to a simple folk song. Despite the avant-garde and deconstructionist tags often slapped on him, the portion I heard was an eclectic, yet straight-ahead set of songs. Of course, the only one that I recognized by name was “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night.”

Even with a packed house, the venue – and Waits himself – gave the concert the air of a private affair held in a small, below street level piano bar. Waits was conversational and rather humorous, although the laid back atmosphere led one disgruntled fan to loudly complain. Her beefs were something along the lines of how she had been thrown out once, how some big fans couldn’t get in because SXSW attendees got too many tickets and so on.

After the first point, Waits wryly intoned, “Well, we’re glad you’re here now.” Unfortunately, it led to more banter between the fan, a slightly defensive Waits, and the rest of the crowd. Members of the crowd exhorted her to “shut up,” and Waits to go on tour and “show her.” As to what it would show her, I’m not sure.

In any case, I know that everyone I talked to who was already a Waits fan was awestruck by the show. I can’t honestly say that I was converted. The show was fine and worth seeing, but the short amount of time that I was at the concert was plenty.

There is no doubt that Tom Waits has been an inspiration to countless artists throughout the years. But his show at the Paramount Theatre — while good — wasn’t much of an inspiration to me.

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