There are probably only a handful of artists in the world now that are a genre unto themselves; so idiosyncratic that they get their own special unit in the CD rack. Such is the case with Tom Waits, who lies somewhere across the normally clear boundary between rusty, stripped down blues and a musical product of the nuthouse. What makes him so interesting is that the root of the music isn’t so obviously the influence of a batch of seminal artists but instead the crazed inner workings of his own mind, which he has managed to adapt and project onto a market now so polluted with squeaky clean, ordinary music.
His late-July gig at the Grand Rex, Paris, was perhaps the greatest I’ve ever seen. The auditorium was like a snapshot of a fairytale — decked out with turrets, candles and a deep-blue starry ceiling — as if they took a chunk of Tom’s own world and rebuilt it for the audience to be a part of. When the spotlight dimmed in and he lurched into the opening track, eyes and mouths in the audience stared agape in wonderment at this wild figure howling at the night, arms outstretched and fluttering madly like a dragonfly. He creates a spectacle so unlike any other: it’s the richest of performances rather than just ‘a gig’, and throughout littered with bizarre (but hilarious) anecdotes, audience participation (3000-odd voices belting out Innocent When You Dream) and his own unintelligible mutterings.
And it’s the mark of true musical genius that he could roar out his 60-a-day voice, often slurring from one word to the next, yet maintain the most exquisite sense of pitch and timing. Even sitting high up at the back his presence filled the entire hall, with every note and subtle turn of melody soaring straight into the ear. The slower piano piece, originally delivered as smooth ballads but now so guttural, were touchingly poignant and tuneful. It’s hard to pick out highlights, but Falling Down, Innocent When You Dream and Hold On left a mark that it’s unlikely future concert could erase.
Listen to the Tom Waits song, Top of the Hill.