Tom Waits looks like a scarecrow and sings like a monster. He growls and howls, he whispers, he wheezes like a muted trumpet.
Needless to say, his voice isn’t for everyone. But its grainy texture and peculiar expressiveness, along with Waits’ mysterious persona and nourish songwriting, have made this avant-garde crooner one of popular music’s most adored cult figures.
Enough people know and care about Tom Waits that his tour-opening show Tuesday night at the Tabernacle sold out in less than half an hour. He has no new record to promote, which hardly mattered. Waits rarely tours – this was his first Atlanta performance in about 30 years – and you never know when the 56-year-old artist is going to hang up his performing career and devote his life to some marginal pursuit, like junk collecting or knife throwing.
And so the Tabernacle was clogged with hard-core fans. The hard-core Waits fan demographic seems to be hipster adults – in the audience was everyone from Criminal Records boss Eric Levin to Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers.
The show lasted almost two hours and covered a huge range of material. Waits played with a crack band that included his son, Casey, on the drums and bluesman Duke Robillard on guitar. The prevailing sound was a minimal, almost tribal of the show standing on a riser at center stage, where he strangled his microphone and stomped to the downbeat. He played some guitar on “Blue Valentines” and did a mini-set on piano (accompanied by Larry Taylor on upright bass), but for most of the show, his voice was his only instrument.
A typical Waits song is rich in detail and haunting in delivery – over the course of Tuesday’s show, his songs mentioned a mule and a pile of dead leaves and a murder on a farm. There was also a barn you’re not supposed to enter. And a chest of drawers in the “House Where Nobody Lives.”
Waits performed “9th and Hennepin,” about a place where people behave like dogs and “all the doughnuts have names like prostitutes.” The song was inspired, Waits swore to the audience, by a night he got caught between two fighting 11-year-old pimps who threw utensils because “they couldn’t afford firearms.”