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LA Weekly Road-trips to Catch Tom Waits in Phoenix

Tom Waits, Orpheum Theater, Phoenix, Arizona, June 17.

By Peter Gilstrap

And so it was that Tom waits came to Phoenix after a three-decade absence on the first night of the American leg of his Glitter and Doom tour, an expedition that will take him to such exotic ports o’ call as El Paso, Tulsa, and Mobile. But, for L.A.-based fans, the Valley of the Sun was as close as Waits was going to get.

Hard to say how many Angelenos were in attendance at the stately Orpheum Theater, but the sold-out crowd of vocal, rambunctious devotees got their money’s worth. Taking a stage decorated with a variety of junkyard civil defense horns, Waits, clad in a bowler hat and dark suit, launched into a stark, bumpy version of “Lucinda,” raising plumes of dust with each stamp of his oversized boots that would have done Herman Munster proud.

Backed by a five-piece band that included Patrick Warren on keyboards, bassist Seth Ford-Young, Omar Torrez on guitars and cigar box banjo — “It’s from Detroit,” Waits informed--Vincent Henry on woodwinds and son Casey Waits on drums, the singer’s voice was still the instrument to beat. From delicate, sandpaper falsetto to barrelhouse gutter roar, his range was a thing to behold; on a sparse reworking of “Eyeball Kid,” he employed a rarely heard character reminiscent of a female impersonator’s take on Pat Buttram.

The mid-set song was a highlight, allowing a slowly spinning Waits to don a derby covered with small mirrors speared in cross spotlights, refracting beams into the crowd as if he were some kind of disco spelunker. The evening’s version of “Rain Dogs” was another treat, Waits blaring away like a midway barker crooning at a bar mitzvah. When he sat at the piano accompanied only by bass player Ford-Young, his churning waltz take of “Innocent When You Dream,” was a thing of beauty, augmented by audience sing along vocals that were not only on key, but nothing less than lovely.

And between songs, a number of unique facts were revealed:

“In Baltimore, it’s illegal to take a lion to the movies.”

“We were a little nervous about coming to Phoenix, there are so many strange laws on the books…no kiss can last longer than three minutes, and all horses must wear diapers. But we came any way, because we can handle it. We’re men.”

The two-hour set of classic material—much of it reconfigured–and a few new tunes was capped by scorching encores featuring “Way Down in the Hole” and “God’s Away on Business.” Outside, the Phoenix air was in triple digits. Inside, a singular performer was all it took to heat things up.

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