Last Night: Tom Waits at The Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts

John Hood

Tom Waits performs before a sold-out crowd at the Times-Union Center in Jacksonville, Fla.

Tom Waits

July 1, 2008

The Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, Jacksonville

Better than: Having a hobo in your home for supper – and having him sing murder songs for it.

(Dateline: Jacksonville) Yeah, you read that correctly, I’m beaming in from Jacksonville, or “Jax” as the locals like to call it. I prefer the term J-Ville, though I don’t know if anybody else does – or did. No matter. I’d call the place Timbuktu if Tom Waits was appearing there, and I’d gladly travel that far to see him too.

And why wouldn’t I? If there’s one performer in this dusty land of ours who best represents the world-weary wanderer, it is Tom Waits.

But his is no Dion type wandering, mind you, mythologized on some AM radio (though he should be). No, the Waitsian wanderer is the drifter, the hobo, the man on the lam, and the wayward. The saddle sore tramp who gets so lost he eventually finds himself. And we find ourselves through him.

Up in the Times-Union Center, thick on the banks of the St. John’s River, there was much for the sold-out crowd to find all right, in song, in spirit and in body.

Equal parts minstrel and scoundrel, troubadour and balladeer, Waits is like a back-alley carnival barker whose hymnal is the Great American Songbook. Centerstage on a dust-soaked platform amid a cornucopia of junk shop instruments, he not so much belts or croons as he conjures, summoning the ghosts of long-gone saloons, long-dead sailors, long-unsolved murders and, of course, long-lost loves, all in a voice that combines both Hoagy Carmichael and Satchmo without sounding like either.

Then there are the songs, which could stand alongside such greats as Mercer and Arlen and Porter if they weren’t so intent on staying marooned in the saloon. “Rain Dogs” and its patter of bourbon, “Lay Down Your Head” with its nod to “Tom Dooley,” “Singapore” with its veritable sling.

But three songs from one of the best albums of all time were just a sliver of an expansive set that swung from the heartbreaking “Lucinda” (off Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards) through the confectionary delight of “Chocolate Jesus” and its femme fatales counterpoint “Black Market Baby” (from Mule Variations), and a three-piece at the piano which included a pining rendition of the inimitably sorrowful “On the Nickel” (Heartattack and Vine).

Waits, of course, could’ve growled through Salt Chunk Mary’s menu and we’d have still been floored, in fact, I think at one point he might have, and I bet even Burroughs stirred a little smirk – all the way from the grave.

Personal Bias: Waits and I share the same haberdasher.

Random Detail: Among between song nuggets concerning Sarah Bernhardt’s amputated leg and the omelet-making capacity of ostrich eggs, Waits told us that there are more insects per square mile of earth than there are people in the whole world.

By the Way: Waits ends his 13-date “Glitter and Doom” tour this Saturday at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, but you can still catch him throughout July – if you happen to be across the pond in Europe.

- John Hood