TOM WAITS did something last Saturday at The Ryman that may have been a first in the annals of Nashville music: he asked the moonstruck audience to stop clapping in time as he played. Perhaps only he could have pulled it off without seeming like a prima donna or a dick, but his mock self-deprecation only stoked the giddy crowd more as he blamed his own faulty sense of rhythm. "You’re a fuckin’ metronome," he deadpanned, before resuming the macabre piano bounce of "Cemetery Polka."
If the audience was eager to make him feel welcome... he hadn’t played Nashville since an Exit/In show 31 years ago... Waits, to his credit, is too prickly and adventurous an artist just to wallow in adoration. In just 22 songs (not counting a couple of interpolated nods to Howlin’ Wolf), he managed to catch everyone up on the past three decades without playing a greatest-hits recap. Reaching back to the lilting "Tom Traubert’s Blues" off 1976’s Small Change, Waits alternately contorted and unfurled his long-limbed scarecrow frame, tossed off shaggy-dog one-liners and non-sequiturs, and railed at the sky with a cocked fist, like a street-corner prophet with visions of flying saucers.
His band, including CASEY WAITS on drums, LARRY TAYLOR on upright bass and all-purpose instrumental ace BENT CLAUSEN on everything from keyboards to banjo-handled every curve the songs threw, segueing effortlessly from the sinuous groove of Swordfishtrombones’ "Shore Leave" to the manic Threepenny Opera goosestep of Blood Money’s "God’s Away on Business." A short set with Waits at the piano produced some of the night’s loveliest moments as well as its funniest.
Given the unenviable task of echoing Marc Ribot’s jagged guitar work on the records, veteran blues guitarist DUKE ROBILLARD put a slinkier spin on his serpentine leads, even playfully nudging the "Bang a Gong" riff into Waits’ hilarious "Goin’ Out West." But it was the man in the crumpled Sinatra hat and well-worn funeral suit who commanded the room’s attention, shape-shifting from the paranoid neighbor of the spoken-word "What’s He Building in There?" to the heartsick soldier of "The Day After Tomorrow." Any performer who gets a standing ovation before he hits the stage might be tempted to coast. Tom Waits, instead, spent the night earning it