Because Songs Matter

ON TOM WAITS AND THE LIVE RECORD


Sometime around midnight last night (I’m on German time for the moment so it was 3:00 Pacific and 6:00 Eastern for those keeping track), I was putting the finishing touches on a night-long Looney Toons marathon when I noticed an email in my inbox from a friend, the subject line reading only “New Waits.” The body of the email was equally brief and cryptic, offering only a link to Waits’ new, redesigned official site.

And there it was.

Tom Waits will be releasing a new album, Glitter and Doom Live, November 24. Just in time to be my favorite record of the year.

Once the initial euphoria of a new Waits record dissipated, I started to think about live records in general. Can you name ten really, really great live records? Live at the Apollo, Live Rust, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, Metallic K.O. and… and? One of the hundreds of available Pearl Jam Official Bootlegs? I’m not a Grateful Dead guy so please don’t mention Dick’s Picks to me. Ever. I’ll allow Rock of Ages. Maybe Live at the Harlem Square Club or Live-Evil would sneak in there but, historically, live records are a poor substitute for witnessing the real thing and/or sitting around your place listening to records. Sometimes they’re a contractual obligation, sometimes a stopgap between “real” releases, sometimes they’re just an exhaustive Lose Weight Exercise in self-congratulation. Tom Petty, in a recent interview regarding his own Live Anthology (which will be released the same day Waits’ record hits shevles), authored my favorite quote on the nature of live records, saying that most amount to little more than “the greatest hits played faster.” My point is this: whatever it is they are, live records are rarely satisfying and almost never worth more than a couple of spins. So why should I be excited about a Tom Waits live record?

Here’s why: have you ever seen a Tom Waits show?

If the answer is no, you’re probably not alone. Given Waits’ historically infrequent touring schedule and penchant for perplexing routing, if you haven’t seen him yet, there exists the very real possibility you will never see Tom Waits perform. Let that sit for a minute. Now, you can either attempt to ignore the cruel hand fate has dealt you, anticipate the man’s next move (good luck) and then chase him around the globe or you can by Glitter and Doom Live and at least approximate the experience of a Waits show. One will cost thousands of dollars and could, quite possibly, alter the space-time continuum irreparably, the other will cost you $20. Your call, hotshot.

If the answer is yes then it will likely take more than a glowing review from a fellow Waits fanatic to sway you one way or the other on this. I’ve been lucky enough to catch Waits twice in my life and I came away from both performances swearing that, anytime he came within a 500 mile radius of my location, I would be there. Until I get the opportunity to make good on that vow, I’ll settle for Glitter and Doom Live, a seventeen-song summation of the visceral, beautiful racket Waits made with this particular collection of musicians (Seth Ford-Young, Vincent Henry, Omar Torrez, Patrick Warren and two of Waits’ kin, Casey and Sullivan Waits) over the course of a few months last year.

And, man. Visceral and beautiful it is. These are not so much re-arrangements of Waits songs, they are complete and utter reconstructions – rhythmically, structurally, musically – of Waits compositions which are at once altogether foreign and eminently recognizable. Above all else, Waits understands spectacle – aural and visual spectacle. He is the preliminary Teller of Tall Tales, the World’s Premiere Carnival Barker, the Great Mythologizer (of all things, none the least of which being The Tom Waits), and above all else, one of the great living songwriters of the last half-century.

For a Waits devotee such as myself, the only question when considering Glitter and Doom Live is can this album come anywhere near experiencing a Tom Waits show?

If the free eight-song sampler offered from Waits’ new site is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. If you’ve never seen Waits, download the sampler and listen. This may be as close as you’ll get. If you have seen Waits, download the sampler and marvel at how quickly the primal, thunderous sound of Waits’ voices conjures a million different memories, all at once.

I’m curious to hear some feedback on this. Will Tom Waits release the best live record of the new millennium? Did I miss any great live records here?

Below you’ll find a couple of tracks from the free eight-song sampler. Have a listen while we debate whether or not Before the Flood belongs on my list.

Tom Waits - Lucinda     

Tom Waits - Goin' Out West (Take 2)     

13 Comments

  1. October 14, 2009    

    first things first: I am a huge Waits fan ever since I discovered The Black Rider. I was 12 years old and never heard ANYTHING like that in my life and was mesmerized. A hip friend’s older sister had all the records and made me a tape of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs and I never looked back (but for years I didn’t know there are songs after Blind Love. The tape ended there so no Downtown Train for me, ha!) From then on I collected TW, he was also the first artist I made an effort to get on vinyl, too.
    So, the new album is a must, naturally, even though the “most recent” live album BIG TIME is probably the only one of his I don’t really like. Anyway, as you said, I’ve never seen him live, goddammit, so I will need this.

    As for live albums, I’ll ignore what you said and will mention the Dead, but then I am a sucker for West Coast psychedelia/folk & country rock, so I love Live/Dead (and the 10 CD box of the complete shows) and many more, the acoustic Reckoning in particular. But other than that, off the top of my head I’d mention:

    Townes Van Zandt: Live At The Old Quarter
    Tom Waits: Nighthawks At The Diner
    Neil Young: Time Fades Away
    MC5: Kick Out The Jams
    Magnolia Electric Co: Trial & Error
    Ramones: It’s Alive
    Hawkwind: Space Ritual
    Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison
    Hot Tuna: s/t
    Van Morrison: It’s Too Late To Stop Now

    Also lots of archival stuff from Dylan – though no Before The Flood for me – and since you mentioned them: the Green Habit 10 CD fan project of Pearl Jam stuff throughout the years. I’ve alawys dismissed them as one of those boring grunge bands, but that set made a fool out of me.

  2. Eli Eli
    October 14, 2009    

    I’ll second Live at the Old Quarter…

    also a big fan of Okonokos and the Allman Brothers Fillmore concerts

    also Royal Albert Hall

    also have a couple of bootlegs I’m real fond of including Lucero, Ben Nichols, Jeff Tweedy, and Ryan Adams (Exit/In)

  3. October 14, 2009    

    Ha! My husband is down in California right now, loitering around the town where Mr Waits apparently lives. Let’s see how many pseudo-stalker photos crop up from his camera!!

  4. October 14, 2009    

    What I’ve heard from the free tracks isn’t doing it for me. I consider myself a Waits fan, and would love to see him live, but maybe it’s not translating on CD without having the memory of the live show to back it up.

  5. October 14, 2009    

    martin – townes live at the old quarter is a great record. slipped my mind when i wrote this, which is my mistake.

    the cash folsom prison/san quentin records are classics for sure but i don’t find myself listening to them much. maybe i oughta.

    i have the pearl jam green habit thing and a number of their official bootlegs. i’ve been a rabid fan since i was 12 years old, when ten was released. if i was to make a list of the ten best shows i’ve ever seen, i bet 3-5 pearl jam shows would wind up on that list.

    eli – yeah, i wasn’t counting bootlegs as much as official live releases. for whatever reason, those tend to fall flat whereas i have plenty of bootlegs that get heavy rotation.

    lollyrae – if your husband can snap a photo of waits in his natural habitat, more power to him! i’d certainly be lingering around.

    cowbelle – one thing the free sample doesn’t do is give a good cross-section of waits’ material. it’s almost all that “the devil swallowed louis armstrong” voice, which is really cool, but waits is a very versatile vocalist and that’s not really represented in the sample. i’m guessing it will be moreso on the live record. maybe not.

  6. October 14, 2009    

    Yeah, good point. I love Mule Variations for providing that cross-section but this seems more uniform in style.

    Ditto on the TVZ Live at the Old Quarter.

  7. Robbmc Robbmc
    October 14, 2009    

    I was lucky enough to catch Waits twice last summer in Edinburgh and it easily dethroned Dylan at the tiny Glasgow Barrowlands as my favourite gig of all time. No mean feat.

    In May of this year Anti records released a 7″ single featuring Bottom of the World from Edinburgh and the sound quality was terrible. And it’s a shame but it doesn’t seem any better on this record either. It seems crazy that they couldn’t use soundboard recordings or at least rigged up one show with a decent recording setup.

    Having said all that I’ve still pre-ordered the vinyl 🙂

    For anyone wanting to sample a Waits show without buying the record (or for anyone who wants to here a complete show), NPR recorded the Atlanta gig and made it available online.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92916923

  8. larry larry
    October 14, 2009    

    I flew to Nashville to see him at The Ryman last year; at once making two wishes come true: seeing a show at The Ryman, seeing an elusive Tom Waits show.

    It was incredible. I hope they tracked a few songs from that night because the acoustics in that place are sick.

    The live, acoustic My Morning Jacket EP is great. For a while I listened to that more often than their studio stuff.

  9. Skip Skip
    October 15, 2009    

    Saw Waits live on the tour before this one- his first show in Detroit in over 20 years. Excellent. This sampler didn’t do much for me, but I’ve only listened once. It’ll probably grow on me.

  10. Curt Shannon Curt Shannon
    October 15, 2009    

    I was lucky enough to see TW at the very beginning of his career, but missed him last summer when he actually was in Atlanta!

    As to live albums, I would humbly submit the Band’s “Last Waltz” and Little Feat’s “Waiting for Columbus.”

  11. Dave Dave
    October 15, 2009    

    First off, I became a HUGE Tom Waits fan about 6 years ago, and since have bought ALL of his CDs, and seen him in concert three times (Detroit 06, Columbus and Knoxville 08). Easily the three greatest concerts I have ever attended, topping Neil Young in 07 and Bob Seger way back in the day.
    The G&D live release has mixed emotions for me. I’ve already heard boots of just about every show in recent years, and have boots of his shows going back to the 70’s. As mentioned above, the Atlanta soundboard was great, and it appears that the quality of the new CD will be as great, if not better.
    It’s bittersweet for me because I was hoping for a brand new release with new songs (he hasn’t had one since 04; Orpans was mostly older songs we’d heard before with new arrangements.)
    That said, give it a listen. My wife was NOT a fan until she went to her first Waits show, and was both reluctant and skeptical. She has been totally hooked ever since. Now she says we’ll go wherever he is performing.
    Finally, if you are a closet Tom Waits fan, you might want to join a bunch of us at Raindogs on Listserv.
    Regards, Dave.

  12. buckets buckets
    October 15, 2009    

    San Quentin – Johnny Cash
    Kicking Television – Wilco
    Waiting for Columbus – Little Feat
    Royall Albert Hall – Bob Dylan
    Nighthawks @ the Diner – Tom Waits

    just to name a few……

  13. bear bear
    October 15, 2009    

    Waits is my soundtrack, in part because I used to live in that little town the previous poster’s husband is stalking about…

    Live albums: James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards, Live in Aught Three. Classic.

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