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Giant waits

Tom Waits

Article from Sound International, June 1979

Tom Waits
London Palladium

Between Waits' two sets, a Palladium usher, immaculately penguinned up, was to be found 'twixt auditorium and bar. In his arms was a bunch of albums for sale bearing the pallid, ill-shaven visage of Mr Waits.

Or as Waits put it, 'I've played some-toilets but this is class.' The gradual elevation up market of Waits, who last played here at Ronnie Scott's three years ago, has made little alteration to his demeanour, but he's tightened up, made his stage show more focused. He even has a few props now — a gas pump and a street light — but remains an essentially economical performer.

Nobody else has worked so stubbornly against all the musical trends of the last 20 years, but there's no doubt Waits is going to be around for a long time. There's nothing terribly original about his themes: bittersweet tales of America's mean streets and backroom bars. But as a raconteur and songwriter he has few peers. He can build character and atmosphere quickly and effectively with the aid of his evocative piano style and a four-piece band somewhere on the blues end of low-rent 50s jazz.

At 30, he works hard on sounding 60 and looking 45. His back of the throat delivery suggests a pickled liver and lungs like coal tips, but makes his hard luck stories more believable. At times he'll lurch hunched against the microphone as if for support, but his timing is so good, it's clear he's well in control of all his faculties. Occasionally and unexpectedly, he looks remarkably like Ian Dury and I suppose there's a perverse parallel in the localised urban detail that goes into making both their characters real.

Formerly remaining on his piano stool, Waits has added a whole new visual element, one moment looking unco-ordinated like a spider on bourbon, the next executing a precise spiv dance. Waits also provides his own sound effects — cars and sirens being produced direct from the throat. Solos, usually from Herb Hardesty on sax, flugelhorn or trumpet are kept tight, and he still uses a stand-up bass player (whom God preserve).

There seems less danger now of Waits allowing his rough diamond characters to slip over into nostalgia and sentiment — his songs have got tougher and he uses words with the timing and care of a flick-knife.

An immaculately-paced and reverentially-received show exceeded all my expectations. As Billy Connolly said after the show: 'The man's a giant.'

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Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Jun 1979

Donated & scanned by: David Thompson

Sound Reports & Views

Feature by Rob Mackie

Previous article in this issue:

> Half-cut Records

Next article in this issue:

> Raucous Chorus

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