Tom Waits, Grand Rex Paris, 29th May 2000

I’m off to see Tom Waits at the Grand Rex in Paris in a few weeks time and, needless to say, I’m rather excited. It’s won’t be the first time I’ve seen him live. In fact, I saw him at the very same venue 8 years’ ago.

Here’s something from the archives:

He’d given two encores – and the house lights had long since come up – but the audience were still on their feet and making an awful lot of noise thirty minutes after Tom Waits had left the stage of the Grand Rex Theatre in Paris. After forty-five minutes, and much to the relief of the bewildered theatre staff, the numbers had dwindled: most had accepted that he wasn’t coming back and reluctantly made their way to the exits. There was a stubborn, hardcore element, though, who carried on whooping and roaring, undeterred by reason and the pleas of the theatre manager to “Go home!”

I know – I was one of them.

The Grand Rex is lavish art-deco monument steeped in history doused in the spirit of ToulousLautrec in other words, the perfect place to see a Tom Waits concert. Upon entering the theatre there was a buzz in the air – the kind you read about in the archive pages of rock magazines, of those legendary gigs that always seemed to happen before you were born. You’re reluctant to let your expectations fly, though, because that’s a high-risk game… you’ve waited thirteen years’ for this and if your wings catch fire that’s quite a fall.

The lights dimmed, the drum-roll started… the crowd erupted. The drum kept rolling – he was taking his time. The crowd went silent, staring at the stage: “What’s he building in there?”

People were still being ushered to their seats when he entered through a side door to the downstairs seating area. There was a very, very loud roar. The spotlight followed him up to the stage as he threw fistfuls of glitter at the frenzied audience while growling into his bullhorn: Ladeez and gentlemen – Harry’s Harbour Bizarre is proud to present, under the Big Top tonight, Human Oddities. That’s right, you’ll see The Three Headed Baby, you’ll see Hitler’s Brain, see Lea Graff the German midget who sat in J.P. Morgan’s lap…”

And I knew right then that this was one of those nights I’d be telling your grandkids about.

Here’s a pet theory of mine, make of it what you will: great concerts – like great movies and even (ahem) great comics – are made up of moments, little epiphanies that that transcend the clutter of our lives and take us to a different place. John Wayne walking off into the sunset at the end of ‘The Searchers’, that’s one. Judge Dredd punching Judge Fear in the face while saying “Gaze into the fist of Dredd”, that’s another. As you get older, these moments are fewer and farther between – maybe because there’s more clutter to transcend than there used to be. With concerts, you’re lucky to find a single moment that light’s your candle, fill’s your bucket and stays with you forever.

Well, Monday night was full of them:

Joining in on the chorus sing-a-long to Innocent When You Dream, Waits looks up from his piano and just says “Beautiful”… his deliciously surreal between-song anecdotes (anyone whose seen the film “Big Time” or listened to the album “Nighthawks at the Diner” knows what I’m talking about here) … The Glitterball Hat he wears during Eyeball Kid (a great visual effect for the fraction of the cost of a light bulb at a Pink Floyd concert)… the theatre turning into an ornate moshpit for ’16 Shells… The Bolshoi Ballet Anecdote…

(Explaining then ban on flash photography at the gig, Waits’ told the audience of his early career as a member of the Bolshoi Ballet. He was at the top of a human pyramid when someone in the audience took a photo. “My career,” he explained, “was over in a flash.”)

Lots of moments, but I particularly enjoyed The Piano Incident. During A Little Rain – a delicate lament from Bone Machine – there’s some screeching feedback as a piano string snaps. “Come on Bob, fix it! You’re on salary!” he yells to a hapless roadie, before adding: “You’re on salary for a minute.” As poor “Bob” tries to fix the piano string, Waits hammers out a staccato tune on the piano whilst ad-libbing a song-slash-running commentary. Then he turns to the audience and says: “That’s a fresh song… straight outta the oven…”

Like his recent album Mule Variations, the set-list touched most of the bases of Waits career. He played plenty of stuff from the Island era, with the classic Raindogs being surprisingly well represented (including the eponymous track, Tango ‘til They’re Sore, Jockey Full Of Bourbon and a, frankly, jaw-dropping rendition of Gun Street Girl). The only Asylum era song was a faultless rendition of Invitation To The Blues, while there were plenty of tracks played from his more recent albums.

As I (reluctantly) left the theatre, I kept thinking of another one of those moments. An English guy in the audience tried to heckle Waits: “Why didntcha play the UK?” This was not a smart thing to do as Waits doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He snarled at the heckler “Y’know, I have these embarrassing family members who keep following me around”, and that led seamlessly into Cementary Polka, a song about embarrassing family members.

As I left the theatre I thought to myself: “If only that guy had rephrased his heckle. Instead of “Why didntcha play the UK?” he should have asked “When are you going to play the UK?”

If I got a straight answer to that one I’d be booking my ticket now.