Falling Down at the foot of Tom Waits

Above: Rain Dogs in St. Louis

By Joel Francis

With a mighty thump of his foot, Tom Waits took the stage of the Fox Theater in St. Louis kicking up a white cloud of dust. Surrounded by old instruments, antique bric-a-brac and dangling Victrola horns, the stage looked more like Fred Sanford’s back yard than one of Missouri’s most historic theaters.

Opening with “Lucinda,” Waits voice recalls a phrase coined by another Lucinda: car wheels on a gravel road. For the next two hours he lorded over the sold-out crowd with a persona equal parts junkyard dealer, carnival barker and vaudeville performer.

“Way Down in the Hole,” the song used as the theme to HBO’s “The Wire,” was next up. For “Heigh Ho,” a song Waits appropriated from the Seven Dwarfs for a late-‘80s Disney compilation, Waits bellowed into a megaphone on a stage bathed in a blood-red light. The setting and arrangement transformed the children’s song from a work chantey into a foreboding descent into purgatory.

For all his theatricality, though, Waits knew when to let a song speak for itself. A gorgeous reading of “Falling Down” struck the balance between dramatic and unvarnished early. Waits later picked up an acoustic guitar to deliver “Day After Tomorrow” for a rapturous crowd that wasn’t afraid to shush someone talking too loudly.

On his 2006 rarities collection, “Orphans,” Waits classified his songs three ways: brawlers, bawlers and bastards. The bawlers got the most work, but well-placed brawlers like “Get Behind the Mule” and the spoken-word vignette “What Is He Building?” kept the pace varied.

Waits didn’t talk much until he got behind the piano for a few songs. Once on the bench he was transformed into the non-sequitor spouting beatnik introduced on his second album, 1975’s “Nighthawks at the Diner.” Waits joked about some of the obscure laws he encountered playing the night before in Tulsa, Okla. and his adventure buying Henry Ford’s dying breath on eBay.

The piano set was far too short. After the beautiful “Lost in the Harbor” Waits returned to his podium for “Make It Rain.” A torrent of glitter fell on the singer halfway through, which made him sparkle for the rest of the night.

Waits stole the spotlight, but was ably assisted by his five-piece band. Guitarist Omar Torrez added an amazing flamenco intro to “All the World is Green,” which was driven by Vincent Henry’s clarinet. Keyboardist Patrick Warren added depth and texture to “Hang Down Your Head.” Drummer Casey Waits pounded his way through his dad’s warped rhythms while bass player Seth Ford-Young pinned everything together.

The two-hour evening ended with Waits behind the piano, leading an audience sing-along through “Innocent When You Dream.” After a 30-year absence from the area, Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a better return.

Setlist: Lucinda, Way Down in the Hole, Falling Down, Black Market Baby, All the World Is Green, Heigh Ho, Get Behind the Mule, Day After Tomorrow, Cemetery Polka, Hang Down Your Head, Lucky Day, Johnsburg, IL, Lost in the Harbour, Make It Rain, Lie To Me, On The Other Side Of The World, Singapore, Dirt In The Ground, What’s He Building?, 16 Shells, Rain Dogs (encores:) Goin’ Out West, Anywhere I Lay My Head, Innocent When You Dream

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