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Thursday, August 10th, 2006

Tough wait

Tom Waits plays the South for the first time in decades and leaves his spirit at home

When Bob Dylan plays a minor-league baseball park in Winston-Salem on Aug. 18, he may thank the audience once. He probably won't say a word. Instead, Dylan will stand and deliver, directing a band that tackles the most revered portions of his canon and twists them into new shapes. On tour in 2006, Bob Dylan offers new, difficult notions of what it means to sound like Bob Dylan, turning the classics into barely recognizable experiments.

When Tom Waits played Asheville's Thomas Wolfe Auditorium--a full two-balcony, 2,400-seat room--Wednesday night, he thanked the audience at least six times. He talked for minutes on end. Waits stood and delivered, but the set offered purposely less alienating takes on some of the more unorthodox portions of his canon that made him famous. On tour in 2006, Tom Waits offers a conformist version of what it meant to sound like Tom Waits.

The comparisons extend beyond coincidental timeframe: Dylan begins to epitomize the concept of singer-songwriter, using approachable analogies as latchkeys--a new pair of boots to represent his loneliness, or perpetual youth to underscore time's imminent tick. No matter how rockist, religious or radical at times he may have become, Dylan's songs have always been about the songs, not their accoutrements. In that way, Bob Dylan is normative.

Waits, though, is the outlier, a vagabond, renegade troubadour who demands that the listener meet his symbols and his universe on his own terms. A majority of his legacy, after all, is based upon his decision to be more than another piano man, and, as such, he's matched lyrics about skin-diseased Chihuahuas and hypersexual Jersey girl virgins with bagpipes, banjos, bullhorns and strongly stylized arrangements.

But Waits' obsession with the outlandish always stood strongest bookended by models of normalcy, lyrically and instrumentally. The image of Frank burning his wife and psoriatic dog is striking because, on Swordfishtrombones, it is almost immediately preceded by "In the Neighborhood," a flood of serene domestic images like funerals, weddings and bacon playing out gracefully. Mule Variations opens with the cacophonous chug of "Big in Japan," but--importantly--ends with the hopeful, simple piano-and-percussion sweep of "Come on Up to the House."

Wednesday--on the second night of an eight-show tour, the fourth tour he has played since 1987--Waits almost always surrounded the normalcy with more normalcy, playing the leader to a blasé four-piece blues band that seemed altogether incapable of delivering his material with any of the intended deranged potency or grit.

Instead, the combination of Roomful of Blues guitarist Duke Robillard, Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor, blood-linked percussionist Casey Waits and keyboardist Bent Clausen sounded like an adult-contemporary Waits cover band backing the real thing for a day. The real thing had flown in, told them to play it nice and easy, and then mailed the whole thing in, hoping not to rock the boat at the above-30 bar. In a way, Waits apologized for his sonic weirdness by avoiding it, ingratiating with pleasantry and an easy shuffle. Only 20 minutes in, it became apparent that blues-lite versions would be the night's standard, and it morphed the night's most potentially cathartic moments--"Hoist that Rag," "Heartattack and Vine," "Get Behind the Mule," "Clap Hands"--into pallid imitations of themselves.

Waits counted off the clip of nearly every song--sometimes verbally, sometimes with his arms (far and away the most active elements of the set)--to son Casey, and the band balked under such direction. Casey played the songs straight, leaving a massive 15-plus-piece drumkit largely unexplored, aside from a standard snare, a hi-hat and two floor toms. Even Robillard, an impeccable blues player whose crisp tone shimmered from a small Fender amplifier, seemed to be more concerned with his volume knob and controlling his guitar's intrusiveness than with the life he could add.

During "What's He Building in There?"--the night's sole attempt at weirdness, a spoken-word track told by an officious citizen watchman suspicious of his hermetic neighbor--the band tried to create the night's lone ruckus by scratching strings and shaking sheet metal. Even then, their din only lurked, avoiding the uneasy loom and leer of the original 1999 freak-in-the-attic reading.

Ultimately, though, the blame doesn't rest with the band as much as it does its director. Robillard was no Marc Ribot, but Waits didn't want him to be. It was Waits, after all, who ostensibly chose to turn a series of eight rare American shows into the type of streamlined, safety-netted American quasi-cultural experience that, previously, seemed to strike against everything he stood for. It was beyond normal, a disappointing negation of the unparalleled risk with which Waits has spent the past two decades staining his music.

His set wasn't challenging. It never ran wild. Waits' stage show was even simple, a few stage-apron lights casting long shadows on a mauve curtain. A collection of a dozen vintage speakers horns stood behind him, present for visual effect only. He jerked his body and moved his hips to the beat, a marionette fishing for cheap guffaws rather than goading his band to dig deeper. Stories about the efficiency of square Asian watermelons and an unfortunate man named Dolittle in an unemployment line charmed the audience with Waits' apparent zaniness, setting up most in the crowd to smile and enjoy without stopping to consider what Waits is capable of.

At least Waits slanted his stagetime: The set was stocked with songs about weathering the bad guys and holding out for hope. The somewhat new "You Can Never Hold Back Spring," a rarity cut from a Roberto Benigni film that made for one of the show's best moments, optioned for optimism, and Waits twisted the coda of "Building" to read: "What's he building in there? What the hell is he building in there? We have a right to know!"

But, still, even those collected moves were too subtle for efficacy, especially with a crowd so gung-ho to be there: After all, it wasn't the same used piece of jet trash that turned Waits' whiskey-and-gravel, smoke-and-grime approach into one of the most endearing, fascinating benchmarks in music. Instead, it was a Chevy galloping to the levy, bright and gleaming, a gigantic generic letdown for anyone looking not just to see a genius but to watch one work.


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