Tom Waits songs are largely about people existing on the fringes — the losers, the freaks, the people struggling to make it — largely out of sight to most of the people they pass on the sidewalk each day.
That’s where Waits’ music exists as well. I can’t decide whether the lack of mainstream attention would be frustrating or freeing — but after seeing him for the first time on Saturday at the Ohio Theater in downtown Columbus, I have to think it’s the latter. Granted — he’s playing for the faithful — but Waits doesn’t shy away from challenging his audience, or from rearranging songs to keep them interesting — for him and for us.
Lucinda / Way Down In The Hole / Falling Down / All The World Is Green / Chocolate Jesus / Cemetery Polka / Sins of My Father / 16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six / Trampled Rose / Cold Cold Ground / November / Black Market Baby / Hoist That Rag / Lucky Day (@piano) / Innocent When You Dream (@piano) / Lost in the Harbor (@ harmonium) / Lie To Me / Misery Is The River Of The World / Big In Japan / Dirt In The Ground / Make It Rain
Encore 1: Jesus Gonna Be Here/Eyeball Kid/House Where Nobody Lives
Encore 2: Time
I knew about two-thirds of the songs we heard on Saturday — but that doesn’t mean there was anything that was unfamiliar. Most are blues-based, once you wade through quirks, clangs and thumps, and most chronicled the hard lives of each character. My highlights:
Lucinda: The opener set me up for the rest of the night. This was more of a performance than I was expecting; all night, Waits jumped, danced and kicked as he stood atop a circular riser at the front of the stage, kicking up dust from the loose floorboards in the riser. Waits’ work boots served as percussion instruments as well, thumping out the time with the uptempo songs.
Chocolate Jesus: Sung through a bullhorn that sat at his feet on the riser. How could you not like this?
16 Shells/Cold Cold Ground: Waits’ live record Big Time wasn’t my first, but it was the one that really opened my eyes. Hearing these songs — almost total opposites in character — really drew me in.
Hoist That Rag: This one was a new song for me, and it made me sorry this wasn’t a dancing show. There’s a latin feel to this — it reminded me of some of the songs on the Buena Vista Social Club CD — and its overlapping rhythms had everyone bopping in their seats.
The cabaret set: I have an old bootleg, recorded in Sydney somewhere during the late 1970s, where the entire set is Waits sitting at a piano, with minimal backup. He’s so engaging like this, and I could have listened to hours, instead of just three tunes. He asked for audience help with Innocent and got it.
Lie To Me: A demented Eddie Cochran rockabilly song. Right in my wheelhouse.
Eyeball Kid: At the start of the instrumental break, Waits turned his back to the audience and picked up something from the back of his riser. It was a mirror-ball bowler — as soon as it was perched on his head, white spotlight focused on the hat and the reflections bounced through the entire room. A really cool bit of showmanship.
House/Time: The last two songs are both ballads. A beautiful way to end.
The act of picking favorites sometimes implies weaknesses elsewhere — and that’s not the case here. There wasn’t a bad song to be found. The setting was perfect as well; the Ohio Theater was restored in the early 1970s and has been the centerpiece for the arts in Columbus since. Waits and the room were well-suited for each other.
At dinner before the show, The Wife and I tried to come up with a list of living musicians we’d pay $100 a ticket to see. The list was pretty short, but we agreed afterwards that we’d pay another $100 to see Tom Waits again — and not think twice.