Friday, November 7, 2008

George's summer in live music #2: Tom Waits; Fleet Foxes

2. Tom Waits
July 5th, 2008
Fox Theatre
Atlanta, GA

Fleet Foxes
July 5th, 2008
Drunken Unicorn
Atlanta, GA

Staying at a cheap-o roadside motel seemed only fitting, as Mr. Waits built his legend on similar environments. Be they dive bars, creepy barns, diners, motels, tenements, small towns, ratty wharfs, dingy neighborhoods: Tom Waits has always found gritty and gloomy more interesting than shiny and flashy.

Of course, the Fox Theatre would belie that. It's an impressive place if you've never been: It sort of mimics a castle courtyard, a purplish ceiling dotted with starlights overlooking an ornate hall, full of rich reds and golds. But leave it to Tom to place a bizarre arrangement of horns and plates as the centerpiece ot his stage design. It looked like part of a Tim Burton setting.

I found my fifth row seat, and after a considerable wait--there were some ticketing issues, and Tom's people wanted to make sure everyone had made it in--the band entered to a thunderous applause, sans Waits. Each instrument was manned: Drums, stand-up bass, electric guitar, sax. A minute or so passed, and then out skulked Tom, taking long, fast steps and hunched a bit, with one hand steadying his trademark black derby, and the other jammed in his coat pocket. He reached his place center stage, and grasped the microphone stand with gusto, stretching his free hand towards us and wiggling his fingers. "Good evening," he roared, delivered with such dragonlike ferocity that I almost expected an accompanying fireball to blow over the first fifteen rows. Then the band tore into "Lucinda" which lurched along menacingly at the pace of a boiling chain gang.

Tom is a bitter pill, I of course recognize this. I don't expect folks to latch onto him the same way I would with Ryan Adams or Bob Dylan. His voice sounds like Satan's, his delivery is often frenzied and spastic, his music feels scarred and beaten. It took a lot of effort to appreciate Tom, to get past all the weirdness and the yelps and the clangs and theatrics. But on that day, I had never been more in awe of a performer. Literally, I was trembling when the man first entered my line of sight. It's as if he was a myth up until this point. And now I was in the presence of Tom Waits, a man whose 30 years' worth of records maintain a consistently higher standard than any other artist in my collection, a man whose art has never been compromised or pared, whose charm and charisma are as unique as they are undeniable.

The things I experienced that night were unbelievable. I saw a nearly 60-year-old man on the final night of a tour performing with the intensity and dynamism of a 25-year-old; I watched as Tom stepped away from the mike during the instrumental bridge of "Falling Down" and receive a thunderous ovation for his vocals up to that point in the song; I heard the woman seated next to me moan orgasmically as Tom crooned the chorus to "Hang Down Your Head"; I felt my spine shiver and shake as the whole crowd roared "Hoist that rag" again and again; and I fought off a growing throat lump as Tom breathed the lyrics to an absolutely crushing version of "Anywhere I Lay My Head" under soft blue light, which provided a poignant ending to the finest musical performance I have ever seen.

The night's excitement did not end with the show however. You see, the fine young harmonizers The Fleet Foxes were playing no more than a mile away. Two friends and I decided to try to catch their set, hoping they'd wouldn't be overlapping with Tom's performance. So we set off for the Drunken Unicorn. On foot. In Atlanta. At about 11 P.M. This was ill-advised, but had I been mugged and killed that night, at least I'd experience such fine spice of life as the Waits show.

Unfortunately our directions were a bit dodgy, and we found ourselves in a strange neighborhood, rooting around in backyards and driveways. We soon concluded that there were no Fleet Foxes to be found in the area, so we retreated a bit. Finally, we found at the Drunken Unicorn, arriving to the strains of lovely album closer "Oliver James," Robin Pecknold's vocals leading us in from the night like some dirty, bearded siren. It was a nice moment.

The hype machine was in full operation for the Foxes at that point. The place was PACKED. The venue wasn't very large--no bigger than a particularly spacious basement--and it was packed to the gills, full of uber-attentive fans. We wedged our way in, my two 6'4" friends were rewarded with a fine view of the stage. My 5'9"-on-a-good-day ass saw a few floating Fleet Fox heads. But, I must say, they sounded absolutely incredible. I didn't think they'd be able to replicate the album's harmonies so well; but I dare say I enjoyed them more live. Tragically, they were well into their set and we only caught about six songs, including the encore of Robin performing "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" solo.

The walk back was, mercifully, much less eventful. We said our goodbyes and I hit the highway, reaching my hotel in a half an hour or so, and sprawling out on my king-sized, which, that night, was where I laid my head and called my home.

***

How lucky am I (and, indeed, are all of us) that the entire show was recorded in a very high-quality and legal fashion by NPR. Download it here (just scroll down til you see Tom's stuff). If you only listen to one song, DEAR GOD let it be "Falling Down". And then imagine being 5 rows back for that absolutely epic performance.

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