For the six hundred fans that rose at dawn for tickets to Tom Waits’ free, live performance, the wait was worth it. As they single-filed into Austin, Texas’ ornate Paramount Theater at midnight on Saturday (March 20), the excitement was palpable, even amongst a bunch of haggard industry folk who had already soaked in four days of music and as much rain. As soon as the fedora-ed, quintessentially cool Waits swaggered onstage, the room boomed with uproarious applause. For a guy with a three-decade-long career, scant few have seen his live show, and for this group, his was the most anticipated concert of the South by Southwest Music Convention.
Drawing heavily from his older catalog and occasionally reaching into his new bag of tricks (Mule Variations is set to be released on Epitaph Records on April 27), Waits moved from guitar to piano to megaphone with grace. His set list, which featured songs like “Johnsburg, Illinois,” “Innocent When You Dream,” “Hang Down Your Head,” “Going Out West” and “9th and Hennepin,” highlighted the evening’s modus operandi – which was undoubtedly to please the crowd.
The new songs, which included the howling “Filipino Box Spring Hog” and “The House Where Nobody Lives,” were as congruous with Waits’ canon as anything that preceded them, and slipped seamlessly into the set. Well into his two-hour show, whether playing songs from the Seventies, Eighties or Nineties, Waits belted his gravelly baritone with peak power, stomping his foot in time and jerking his elbows high in the air. His energy was infectious, up until the last note of the second encore.
“My wife says I have two kinds of songs: Grand Weepers and Grim Reapers,” the double-denimed minstrel joked as he tinkered at his baby grand. It was this kind of inter-song banter that kept the evening light, despite the desperate barroom ballads and bourbon-soaked verses that occupy Waits’ work. Between somber songs and knee-slapping blues numbers, Waits joked about leeching, parallel parking and the unusual hospitality of Texans. Although the audience (which included Lucinda Williams and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous) sat entranced during the songs, they erupted in laughter at the surprisingly frivolous humor that peppered the set.
At nearly 2:30 a.m., Tom Waits exited the stage of the Paramount for the last time. His first show in nearly three years — and first ever for many in attendance that evening — was undeniably a unique night on earth.