Moran Theater, Jacksonville, Florida, July 1, 2008
After just the first verse of “Chocolate Jesus,” Tom Waits abruptly stopped his band to admonish the audience. “If you’re going to clap along,” he scolded them, “please work together. You need to elect some kind of leader, someone with especially good rhythm. There’s just no other way to do it. I can’t come out there and stop each of you individually, but please, try to stay on tempo.”
It was a reasonable request, but as Waits repeatedly proved during his masterful performance in Jacksonville, Florida — one of the final stops on his “Glitter & Doom” tour — tempo is a subjective thing. When Waits sang, his body moved like an epileptic fit. He flailed his arms and stomped his feet and kicked his left leg backward with mule-like precision, all in no particular order. If there was a consistent beat somewhere, only he (and possibly his band) could hear it.
The moment he took to the stage at the Moran Theater, belting out the Orphans’ funeral dirge “Lucinda”, he was in full Tom Waits form. At this point in his career, his stage persona has transcended self-parody and entered another realm altogether. A thousand journalists typing on a thousand typewriters couldn’t come up with enough similes to do it justice. He was a drunken evangelist pleading his case to angry spirits. A snake oil salesman suffering from a violent allergic reaction. A carnival barker having an emotional collapse under the glare of a spotlight. With his ratty brown suit and bowler hat, he looked like something out of Cabaret, if the musical had been set in a southern gospel church where voodoo is the medicine of choice.
But the real showstopper was that voice – oh sweet gentle Jesus, that voice. Waits has always sung with a raspy moan, but at 58 it’s evolved into a sonic boom. It’s frightening in ways that no black metal band could ever hope to duplicate. When he blurted out a lyric like “take a swig of that poison and like it” (from the obscure Big Time tune “Falling Down”), it felt like a direct order from an angry god. His five-piece band only added to the musical grit, creating a thumping, bass-heavy sound that perfectly complemented Wait’s throat rattle. Saxophonist Vincent Henry, in particular, seemed possessed by some demonic power, occasionally playing two instruments simultaneously.
The setlist, taken predominately from 1985’s Rain Dogs and more recent albums like Mule Variations and Real Gone, was exactly what anybody could have wanted or expected from a Tom Waits’ tour of the deep south. With very few exceptions, every song was about guns or god, and sometimes both. If he wasn’t sermonizing about the devil’s temptations (“Way Down In the Hole”) or reminding us that heaven is likely overbooked (“Dirt in the Ground”), he was bemoaning wasted ammunition (“16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six”) or barking for his “Winchester rifle and a whole box of shells” (“Cold, Cold Ground”). Cain and Abel were mentioned a lot, almost as much as carnival freaks and sailors.
At some point during the concert’s two-hours-and-change running time, it began to make sense why Waits avoided the Coasts altogether and brought his apocalyptic traveling circus to comparatively rural locales like El Paso, Birmingham and now Jacksonville, a city of Naval bases and bible-belt conservatism. It wasn’t a random choice. It was about musical context. In New York and Los Angeles, songs about Jesus and whiskey are just ironic. But in this part of the world, it passes for culture.
Towards the end of his set, Waits led the band through “Hoist That Rag,” transformed into a rowdy Spanish romp. The song, a thinly-veiled parody of jingoism, is haunting enough on its own, but to witness it performed in a humid Florida theater (the air-conditioning, for some unexplained reason, was turned on only sporadically), in a city with the third largest military presence in the country, it took on a deeper significance. It was like reading a Steinbeck novel in the Dust Bowl.
“Smoke is blacking out the sun,” Waits growled, swaying like a scarecrow in a tropical storm. “At night I pray and clean my gun.” The audience tried clapping along again. They weren’t getting any better at following his tempo, but they understood him nonetheless.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Rolling Stone.)