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Tom Waits Spins Yarns, Sings About Jesus at Tour Opener in Phoenix

June 18, 2008 12:42 PM ET

"The world is not my home," Tom Waits sang on the opening night of his highly anticipated U.S. tour. "I'm just passing through." One place Waits has always made his own is the stage, so no surprise that last night's looked like a junkyard at midnight: nebulously lit and hung in mist.

Flanked by a menacing installation of horn speakers crackling out old-time phonograph music and surrounded by a graveyard of cigar-box banjoes, bullhorns and ramshackle guitars, Waits' sextet took the stage at Phoenix's Orpheum Theatre around 8:30 and powered into a lurching medley of "Lucinda" and "Aint Goin Down to the Well." Set against his own towering silhouette, Waits was a drawn sketch of twisted limbs: heaving and panting like a stalled locomotive. Clutching the microphone with both hands as if it were the only thing keeping him up, he stomped his workman's boots so hard the floorboards coughed up thick clouds of dust into the spotlight around his legs.

The 25 songs the band played were fever dreams from an old, weird America whose greatest trick has been convincing the world it's been eradicated by modern life: an underworld of "Rain Dogs," "Eyeball Kids" and "Black Market Babies"; of "Trampled Roses" and "Christmas Cards from Hookers in Minneapolis." "Jesus Gonna Be Here" Waits coughed, but "God's Away on Business." Waits' subjects are down and out American grotesques, and he spent the better part of his performance playing the demented preacher to that set: slightly oversized suit and bowler hat, arms spread out to their length, palms down, wide hands quavering or waggling an index finger. "Does life seem nasty, brutish and short?" he sang. "Come on up to the house."

Sonically, Waits still sings like the devil he's slated to play in the new Terry Gilliam flick, and he's being backed by crack-squad of musicians precise enough to make his songs sound like they're just always on the verge of coming apart at the seams — which is presumably how he wants them. Every instrument Waits played looked like it's been salvaged, but that's only a representation of how his art gets made. Waits, 58, ultimately spent the night demonstrating that he's one of the last remaining character actors in American music: a self proclaimed "moonlighting" thespian who's always known that music is another kind of theatre — a very particular storytelling practice — and that it's all in the delivery.

Set List:

"Lucinda/ Ain't Goin Down to the Well"
"Hoist That Rag"
"Come On Up to the House"
"Jesus Gonna Be Here"
"November"
"Black Market Baby"
"Rain Dogs"
"Trampled Rose"
"Goin' Out West"
"Murder in the Red Barn"
"Anywhere I Lay my Head"
"Cemetary Polka"
"Get Behind the Mule"
"Eyeball Kid"
"Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis"
"Picture in a Frame"
"Invitation to the Blues"
"Innocent When You Dream"
"Lie to Me"
"Chocolate Jesus"
"Make it Rain"

Encore:

"Way Down in the Hole"
"God's Away on Business"
"Time"

 

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