Tom Waits led a two-hour descent into his netherworld of two-room walk-ups, three-cell jails, small-time palookas and post cards from prostitutes on Saturday night at the Wiltern Theatre, wowing the capacity crowd with a highly stylized, extremely theatrical presentation that nonetheless managed to conjure up an almost-oppressive sense of intimacy.
The sandpaper-voiced poet laureate of the human holding tank worked much of the show sans spotlight, using a hand-held auto-repair light in much the same manner as Dean Stockwell's unholy Roy Orbison lip-sync in "Blue Velvet."
Combine this with stage lighting limited to reflections off a bunch of odd-sized, orange and red plastic panels scattered around the bandstand and costume changes from sleazy soul singer to sleazier lounge singer to sleaziest street singer, and you have the backdrop to what is obviously already shaping up as some enchanted evening.
Aside from a tuff-enuff encore take on James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and, notably, "Chistmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," most of Waits' musical selections for this first of three scheduled shows (the engagement ends tonight) were taken from his two latest LPs, "Rain Dogs" and "Franks Wild Years."
Waits, who hit the national scene in 1973 straight from the storied environs of the now-razed Tropicana Hotel like some neo-jazzy beatnik scion of the collected mind-meld of Jack Kerouac, Mose Allison and Lord Buckley, has since made his music a distillation of junk-shop instruments, half-forgotten folk songs, sea chanteys, nursery rhymes, Dixieland, voodoo chants, be-bop, blues, country and a thousand and one records heard once on a radio long ago. In short, everything you don't hear on the pop charts nowadays.
But Waits is in no way a revivalist, and his five-man band did a dynamic job of re-creating even the most quirky arrangements. Waits likes to use unusual instrumentation to give similar songs a completely different coloration, which meant that marimba, baritone horn, clarinet, fluegelhorn, accordion and banjo were tossed into the traditional rock mix. Meanwhile, Waits played guitar and piano and sang through a variety of bullhorns.
As you might gather from his recent screen acting roles (the itchy-twitchy short-order cook in "Rumblefish," the luckless deejay in "Down by Law"), Waits is an exceptionally expressive performer and a superb raconteur, given to dancing wiggy jigs, repeating sight gags, telling shaggy dog stories and engaging in stinging repartee.
Among the night of highlights: a wise-blooded Southern gothic preacher rap, a droll retelling of Friday's "Dear Abby" column item concerning virgin birth, the acid-etched version of "Straight to the Top (Vegas)" and the all-artifice-removed rendition of the evening's final number, "Time," a bittersweet reflective ballad of great pain and beauty.