Tom Waits at the Ratcellar
by Brendan Strong
Once again, if there was ever a gig populated solely by the artiste’s biggest fan, it’s Tom Waits. The excitement was palpable. So many were wearing hats and suits. You could see ‘Small Change’-Tom Waits argue with ‘Mule Variations’-Tom Waits over the songs that actual Tom Waits would just have to play.
But there was no trouble. No one wants trouble at an event that everyone knows everyone else has made sacrifices for.
The Rat Cellar was quite a sight on the site. You can see a picture of it here on Stu’s blog. A circus-like marquee, with Mr Waits looking down from the publicity photo. Step Right Up! he seemed to be saying, or maybe even “Those with a heart condition be warned!” Under his watchful gaze, we shuffled up, along and back from stalls selling beer, burgers, coffee and chocolate.
Inside, you could see seats. Rows and rows of tightly packed seats. The stage was set for something quite promising. Trees of old speaker cones grew above lightbulb hedges surrounding the stage, hanging over the instruments closely but carefully packed around a small stand, in front of which rose another microphone, it’s stand positioned on the floor and quite extended. Everyone knew what was going to happen there, but nobody was prepared when it did.
Taking my seat, I felt lucky. Lucky to be here, lucky to have a friend like Owen the Oracle and the lovely Niamh, without whom I certainly wouldn’t have been there, lucky to be the fat guy between two skinny folks in those too-close seats. When one of us stood, another five had also to stand to accomodate thighs, shoulders and bellies. Intimate.
Then the lights went down.
A roar went up (from the crowd).
A band appeared and took their places.
Mr Waits shot out from backstage and onto his little raised platform at the front. We were all on our feet, clapping as he raised and lowered teh crowd with two outstretched arms, commanding rather than pleading. A gasp of his voice-box percussion and the whole damn band blew into action
“Well, they call me William the Pleaser…” As anticipated, The Voice. It came up from the bottom of his shoes, or perhaps even the bowels of hell. It rattled through his body as he sang, feet kicking to raise dust and hit a small bell on the small platform; arms outstreched, waving – a lunatic prophesying.
A snap of silence to break Lucinda into “Ain’t Goin’ Down” let us all know just how kinetic this gig was going to be. With clouds flying everytime he kicked the floor and the band pulling together all those sounds that make up a Tom Waits Song. Looking around at the crowd, most had forgotten the intimate seating, and were enraptured by this 58-year old who refused to be pinned down by anything other than his own artistic whim and, of course, love.
The band were amazing. I can’t imagine what it takes to keep a Tom Waits song tight, given all the almost ‘accidental’-sounding bits and pieces that go into them. But Casey Waits (yes, his son, but worthy of being there of his own right) kept beats and percussion to meet the needs of Waits’ driving, yet eccentric songs. The bass boomed out by Seth Ford-Young was understated but essential to the whole. It rumbled on underneath the spikes, jolts and beauty of Omar Torrez’ guitars. They weren’t Marc Ribot, but they were all the better for not trying to be Marc Ribot – Torrez made the position of Waits guitar-man all his own (a hard enough task after Ribot). On the piano (when Waits was busy gesticulating and bursting at the seam from the power of his voice) was Patrick Moran. He was sort of undesrtated to, hidden at the back as he was. But on songs like November, his touch was perfect, tender and quiet then a little intimidating. On many, many other instruments was Vincent Henry. He was quite remarkable, playing a multitude of wind instruments and guitars and apparently giving a young Sullivan Waits lessons during the gig. I couldn’t say enough about this band. They didn’t just hit the right notes at the right time – they got the tone, the touch, the feeling of every moment dead right. It couldn’t be stressed enough just how important this is for a Tom Waits gig, and if you’ve ever listened to a Tom Waits record, it probably doesn’t need to be said. So we’ll move on!
After a more than impressive first song, the band powered through a set of songs spanning most of the Waits catalog (the early period stuff – Closing Time, Heart of Saturday Night – seemed left out…), including favourites for both ‘Small Change’-Tom Waits and ‘Mule Variations’-Tom Waits. I smiled to think how they’ll both be getting on, happy and mimicking that growl as they tip their hats to each other.
There were some real surprises too. A rocksteady twist on Black Market Baby, 9th and Hennepin with a cinematic intimidation. Make it Rain with the glitter promised in the title of the tour. Glitter rained down on Waits to the glee of the crowd. It recalled the confetti Waits threw during the Big Time tour (example 1, example 2).
And like the glitter, doom and confetti, a thought drifted down on me, settled and stuck – next year: will a Glitter and Doom CD & DVD be released? With any luck it will include a rerelease of Big Time, which never managed to make it to DVD.
After it all, I walked around, dazed. For two days.