"It's good to be back in Memphis," Tom Waits said shortly after taking the stage before a sold-out audience at the Orpheum, the singer-songwriter's first concert in Memphis in 29 years. "I gotta say, though, what happened to Lansky's? Did it move to Florida or Cuba?"
An audience member soon set him straight on Elvis' favorite clothier, now at The Peabody. But just mentioning it displayed a light, personal touch from Waits, who all night deftly balanced his dark, macabre tales of dropouts and burnouts with humorous riffs on coffee bars and unemployment line bums. Most of Waits' two-and-a-half hour set Friday night came from his last studio album, 2004's Real Gone, although he performed a sampling of material from throughout his career.
Many of the 2,300 concertgoers were hardcore fans who called out for their favorites. He didn't take requests, though, and mostly avoided his best-known works -- there was no "Step Right Up" or "Ol' 55."
Waits started with "Singapore" from the album Rain Dogs, which quickly exposed the one glaring defect of the night. Waits, never the prettiest of singers (nor should he be, considering the hard-rabble nature of his material), has not aged well as a vocalist. Once capable of handling tender melodies, he was forced to woof his lyrics much of the night.
For "2:19," an unreleased track from Waits' Mule Variations album that has thus far only appeared on his friend John Hampton's 2001 Wicked Grin album, Waits sang partly through a megaphone before devolving into a series of huffs and parrot calls.
Still, the power of Waits' words was able to pierce through his voice's limitations, and his four-piece backing band kept the music rolling with brutal efficiency.
The singer's son, Casey Waits, has mastered the drumming in his father's music, parts that mostly discard traditional back beats in favor of intricate percussion textures such as the rolling thunder on "God's Away On Business."
Waits closed the night with the blues rocker "Going Out West" from Bone Machine but came back with an acoustic guitar for an encore that contained a pair of Real Gone songs, including the powerful soldier's lament "Day After Tomorrow," the only song of the night to receive its own standing ovation.