Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tom Waits: Glitter and Doom Live

Tom Waits' Glitter and Doom Tour was a special event for any fan of Tom Waits and his unique blend of music, vaudeville and Will Rogers routines. It's not like Waits hits the tour trail every year, or even every time he releases an album, so fans were justifiably excited. For those who didn't get the chance to catch the tour, Glitter and Doom Live feels like a good representation of a live Waits show (although, having not seen one of the live shows of the tour myself, I can't be sure) with one exception: The storytelling. More on that in a second.

Back in 1983, with Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits became the Tom Waits we know today. While he had always been a masterful songwriter, Swordfishtrombones found Waits throwing traditional arrangements out the window in favor of using found instruments while making new ones out of junk and settling in to his now familiar husky growl of a voice. It's that voice that now dominates Waits' songs and on Glitter and Doom, he once again finds a way to make that barbarian yawp an effective conveyor of sentimentality, without getting all mushy. Still, his voice has gotten so gruff that one wonders if songs like Town with No Cheer or Soldier's Things are left off the live set because the voice is no longer gentle enough to make them work. Possibly, but as the inclusion of songs like The Part You Throw Away work beautifully with all the gruffness intact (and simply wonderful guitar work by Omar Torez) it leaves the question open. In fact, all the songs work, to one degree or another. What's missing are the stories.

Tom Waits often speaks story songs in rhythmic cadences, giving something like Frank's Place a beat poetry reading feel rather than a spoken song feel. However, songs like Frank's Place are oddly lacking and except for one "story" (more of a joke, it's a tale of buying Henry Ford's dying breath on e-bay) no storytelling makes it to the music section of this two-CD set. The solution to this lack of storytelling or spoken story songs, the producers of this CD seem to believe, is to include a second CD of nothing but Waits talking to the audience.

That actually sounds pretty great and I was excited for this part of the live album most of all. Problem is, there are no stories. No recounting of hilarious episodes from his life or tall-tales from the road. It's all random one-liners and animal jokes. His delivery's fine ("There's a law in Oklahoma says you can't eat in a place that's also on fire. [pause] That really limited our options.") but there's nothing at the end of it but punchlines. No "tale" is more than a few seconds of set-up followed by punchline and after 35 minutes, brother, that can get wearying.

Yes, thirty-five minutes of jokes. Think about that. Think about a stand-up routine and how they work. If you watch a Louis CK performance you'll notice that the "jokes" are really just riffs on developing stories over the course of the concert. A theme is developed and played off of for an ample duration before transitioning to the next. That's not what happens here. In fact, it can't happen here as the talking segments are stitched together from various stops on the tour, which is why they have no flow. And so you get that Oklahoma joke. Immediately following you get a joke about vultures. Then you get a joke about cars. Then you get a joke about antiques. And on it goes, for thirty-five minutes. It's like when you were a kid and a friend got a joke book and decided it would be so great to constantly read you jokes from it and you thought, "This sucks, can we just talk about something." The right idea would have been to take jokes and stories and songs and mix them all together.

Glitter and Doom Live is probably a decent representation of a live show by Waits but, I suspect, not nearly as good as it could've been. More variety from his vast catalogue, more stories and more cohesion would've helped this venture a lot. Too bad, because Tom Waits remains one of the most unique and talented songwriter/storytellers modern music has yet produced and it's because of that talent that I can still recommend this, barely, despite the flaws.