Tom Waits didn’t arrive at the jumping-off point of his first tour of the Southern U.S. in almost 30 years by stretch Caddy, nor by city bus or mule. However, the nearly 60-year-old American original was over an hour late taking the stage of Atlanta’s Tabernacle on Tues. Aug. 1, making the over-capacity throng of devotees who turned out more than a little squirrelly. The downtown venue was once a church, after all, and this was a very rare opportunity for all who’d gathered.
With barely a month between the announcement of the show/tour and the actual opening night date, it seemed as if Waits may be flying by the seat of his trousers, so to speak. When a jovial Waits, former Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Duke Robbilard, longtime bassist Larry Taylor, vibraphonist/organist Brent Clausen, and guest drummer, son Casey Waits, took the stage, though, it was most assuredly go time. The congregation had stifled and panted in the heat and noise for long enough — they wanted some salvation … or at least a little holy water runoff.
Clad in familiar attire — porkpie hat, dark jacket, crumpled slacks — Waits cast a scarecrow’s shadow across the theater’s long yellow curtain. Opening with the thumping “Make It Rain” and a commanding “Hoist That Rag,” both from 2005’s Real Gone, it was clear that the conductor had arrived and the ride was about to get a little bumpy.
The band were a little looser and much less in-pocket than the troupe that commanded the grinding Latin-infused groove of the Real Gone material. In place of master guitarist Marc Ribot was Robillard, who may have not always matched up with his bandmate’s uneasy tempos, but definitely excelled on wildman blues cuts like “Get Behind The Mule” and “Murder In the Red Barn” — both delivered more in the style of John Hammond, who’d covered them on his Wicked Grin album.
The moment where many fans really got their money’s worth came early, as the band took a breather while Waits seated himself behind a piano-on-wheels for a brief but enlightening set of solo tunes and conversation. Among the topics offered up were the Atlanta Zoo’s recently acquired set of pandas and the hidden ingredients of a popular, unnamed doggie snack treat: “Bull penis! Can you believe it?” he chortled to an already bemused crowd.
Then, he made ’em weep. The solo set included an off-kilter “Tango till They’re Sore,” the seldom-heard “Lucky Day,” and a tear-jerking “House where Nobody Lives.”
The band soon returned for another hour of the unpredictable with older cuts like “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard” and the spoken-word “9th & Hennepin.” Before seagoing into “Hennepin’s” beat poet spiel, Waits commented on its origins and fate as going from a seedy, crime-infested neighborhood to a place where families go to “get yogurt with their kids.” He could’ve just as well been talking about the area in which he was performing that night. After all, the Olympic Park sector of Atlanta had changed quite a bit since Waits last appeared there in 1978 to far less adulation.
Waits ain’t gonna be able to do this forever. Midway through the set he was already clutching his throat, though the trademark bourbon and cigar rasp held up surprisingly well throughout.
After the wobbly, coyote-howls of “Shake It,” all retired before eventually returning for two encores that saw a house-raising “Goin’ Out West” and Waits alone, speedily strumming the antiwar ballad “Day After Tomorrow” before launching a surprisingly stout “Heart Attack and Vine,” into which dropped the chorus of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” (a version of which had blasted from the house PA earlier in the evening).
In all, Waits and company had given a spirited two-hour show that seemed to go by in 20 minutes. Obviously, the crowd wanted more but when the house lights went up at almost exactly 11 p.m., the ride was, indeed, done.