"Here's the deal … you don't want to oversaturate the market."
That's how Tom Waits explained his three-decade performing absence from Nashville, one he more than made up for Saturday night at the Ryman Auditorium in front of a sold-out house of Waits-starved worshippers.
Even back in the ancient, pre-country days when the holy structure was an actual church, it's hard to imagine a more passionate sermonizer gracing the boards than Waits. Clad in pork pie hat, black jeans and dark jacket, the man hit the stage with arms raised and fingers extended toward the faithful, delivering invisible rays of oddball mojo before the first downbeat of "Make it Rain" sent his thin frame into motion, part St. Vitus Dance victim, part broken marionette.
The lighting was stark; the stage set was minimal; only the necessary tools were in evidence: stand-up bass, drums (featuring son Casey Waits with his back to the audience), guitar, vibes, kitchen sink-plus amounts of percussion, and a collection of gramophone bells and PA horns erected behind Waits, framing him in a kind of Cold War-era Civil Defense warning system. That's all a mesmerizing character like Waits needs. He kept the audience rapt for two hours, snaking his way through choice selections — some familiar, some not so — from his massive catalog.
Early in the set, Waits delivered a sensuous, meandering version of "Shore Leave," complete with a mention of Tennessee that didn't go unnoticed by the crowd. Where more conventional musicians might use plain old numbers to count off a song, Waits has no problem with setting a tempo via huffs and snorts, sounding like a shaman with emphysema in full chant. He used this to great effect, opening a strident version of "God's Away on Business" that had the singer's neck veins popping from the start, and what sounded like 4,000 hands clapping in perfect Brechtian march time by the second verse.
For all the hypnotic intensity that Waits put into his songs, once the music stopped, he slipped easily into his amiable bar-hound-with-a-non-sequitur-back persona, addressing spontaneous audience queries.
"I'm still working at the airport. But I travel a great deal."
"How do I like the weather? Weather of any kind is pleasant. When you're gone, there's no weather. So yes, I like the weather."
After an enthusiastic audience participation stab:
"That was great. You guys can sing. Oh hell, you're in Nashville — everybody sings in Nashville."
A few songs in, the band left the stage (albeit the bass player) as a piano was wheeled out. With nothing more than 88 keys and a baby blue spotlight, Waits sat down, removed some of the gravel from his voice and turned the auditorium into an intimate nightclub. "Tom Traubert's Blues" — with its echoes of "Waltzing Matilda" — was simply a moving thing of beauty, as was his eloquent, poetic "House Where Nobody Lives."
The band returned to provide a taste of sci-fi soundtrack backing for the singer's spoken narrative, "What's He Building?" a piece that showcased Waits' ability to hang dripping skins of innuendo on normal sentences via the gruff magic of his delivery. The set ended with the blasting "Goin' Out West," but that was not all. Waits returned for two encores, the plaintive anti-war love letter, "Day After Tomorrow," and a version of "Heartattack and Vine" that saw him using about eight different voices from his arsenal of rasp and sputter, including something with a hint of Peter Lorre with a sinus infection. Then there was applause and a lot of it, but he did not return.
With any luck, Music City won't have to wait another 30 years to see Tom Waits again.