Looking For The Heart of Friday Night - Tom Waits in The Phoenix Park, Dublin, August 1st 2008

(The photos by John O'Reilly, my super bro-in-law, are from the concert)

So Johnny Depp and me went to see Tom Waits up in 'The Park' last Friday night.

Okay, maybe I wasn't actually sitting beside Johnny. Maybe I didn't even know he was there until I read it in the gossip column the day after.

That doesn't matter.

I wouldn't have cared even if he was right next to me.

For me, the biggest star in the world was right up there on the stage, stomping around in his monstrous work boots, grunting and growling, conducting us, the audience, as if we were a three thousand strong, slightly errant, symphony orchestra.

Tom Waits has been a feature of my life ever since my brother brought home the 'Blue Valentine' album back in '78. The deal was sealed when I went, alone, to see him in Dublin's Olympia Theatre in 1981. My expectations did not go much beyond him growling out a few of my favorite tunes. Instead I was treated to a show of such theatricality, raconteur ism, and wit that it has never since been topped.

I went on to see him two times more, met him once (see this earlier post). His lyrical creativity and uncompromising artistic vision has brought me right along with him through his every musical metamorphosis, from dead-beat-poet through manic preacher to Godot-like-troubadour-in-limbo.

All very well, Kenneth, but what was the bloody concert like?

Sorry...  Man, it rocked!

Tom's had some strict anti-touting ticket rules - I needed my passport to get in. This meant that each and every one of the three thousand anxious folk inside that huge circus tent in the park had long planned-on and anticipated being there.

Nobody within had casually picked up a twice-the-price ticket on an impulse to see that weird man inside the big top. As a result, the air of genuine pre-show excitement was utterly palpable.

On a huge stage decorated with outlandishly dated sound equipment, Tom's super-band punctually emerged 30 minutes late. Tom arranged himself on a raised circular ornately decorated dais in the centre of the stage and let rip.

You can get the set list on numerous other sites. Tom plays a different one every night. Some set pieces remain from night to night but, beyond that, you are in the hands of the Gods as to where the old master will choose to take you.

I knew almost every song but, oddly enough, it was the few that I didn't know that delighted me the most. "I'll Shoot The Moon" from "The Black Rider" being one example.

The set-list favoured much of his newer material which will doubtless have pissed-off some of those Irish fans who think he hasn't written anything since 'Closing Time' back in 1973.

In the middle, though, he sat at the piano and waltzed us through Mathilda (Tom Traubert's Blues) and even strapped on the guitar to sublimely perform 'Blue Valentine'. How anyone could feel cheated of classics at that point, I do not know.

Tom Waits hides his true self behind a highly effective smoke screen of quirky image, low-life-nostalgia and wry-off-beat-humour. In interviews, he appears to lie copiously and unapologetically and, although these are enjoyable events, very little of substance is ever revealed.

In an interview with Mick Brown, back in 2005, Tom dropped his shield momentarily to say,

"The fact is that everybody who starts doing this to a certain extent develops some kind of persona or image in order to survive... the whole thing's an act, nobody would ever really show you who they are, nobody would dare do that..."

My point with this is simple, although Tom hides himself successfully in his persona(s), I feel that he cannot help but reveal himself in his songs. The trick is to identify which of his songs are actually the revealing ones. For me, something like "Take it With Me When I Go" from "Mule Variations" is a highly personal reflection on life and love.

But I could so easily be wrong.

As Tom was up there stomping around, kicking up copious clouds of dust on the stage on Friday evening, I imagined I intuited lots of things from him. I sensed his relief to be at the last night of a grueling tour. I sensed pride in having his sons support him on the stage and bearing witness to their father unleashed in his natural element.

But wasn't I really just projecting some of my own stuff up there onto Tom? If I pick the song(s) in which he reveals himself, isn't it true that I really only succeed in revealing myself?

Therein lies the magic of the master Vaudevillian, to hold the proverbial mirror up for ourselves to look in. If that's what happened on Friday last, I kind of liked what looked back.

And finally, what makes last Friday one of my greatest ever concert-expeditions is simply this:

From up there on the stage right down to my cramped seat in Row Q, Tom succeeded in connecting with me.

My usual habit of being over-interested/annoyed at every little distraction going on around me was completely shelved as Tom told me his stories and sang me his songs.

 At times it was just me and him in that packed tent.

I see this as being yet another part of his genius. I also compliment myself modestly for my good disposition on the evening.

We made a great team on the night, Tom and me.

And Johnny made three.


Fiendish said...

Brilliant brilliant stuff. What an excellent concert review. I feel ashamed for not writing about Oxegen, but there's no way I could have captured anything like you did in this post. Well done.

j said...

One of the first presents my now-husband gave me was The Heart of Saturday Night CD (of course, this falls into Tom Waits' oldies set). Great review.

Karla said...

Sounds like it was a great show...One of my proud mum moments is that all 3 of my sons have Tom Waits on their must playlist;)

Dave King said...

A really enjoyable post made all the more so by those fantastic images. They match your text exactly.

Rachel Fox said...

It's quite amazing when a favourite musician (or any performer) really puts on the best show on earth (as opposed to a disappointing 'well, it was OK but...'). It sounds brilliant. He is a real star!

Jena Isle said...

It was vividly described, now I would like to listen to him. He must be really good to capture your fancy. Thanks for sharing.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks Fiendish - it is a simple fact that the quality of your own writing on music matters has encouraged me to try this so, come on, Oxygen??

Jennifer: Tom did Heart of Saturday night on Friday night... we were Baling down the boulevard :)

Thyme2dream: that is a proud mum claim indeed, my guys like... nope, I don't know who they like.

Thanks Dave, Kudos to John O'Reilly who worked hard on pictures - I've chopped his work up badly to fit it on the page but he does take on hell of a photo.

Oh Rachel, I think you in particular would have liked it a bit.

Jena: You should seek out some of his early tunes, I think they would suit your romantic nature. :)

Anonymous said...

Great review Ken and thanks for your comment chez moi. I don't think it's possible to exaggerate how good it was (I was at the first Edinburgh show)

Kim said...

excellent post Ken...
I'm an avid fan of Tom Waits (have been for years!)..
and Johny Depp too.... *smiling enviously*..
reminds me of the time I was standing next to Robin Williams (in his Mork days) after a performance at the Berkeley Square Ball in London..
hey and thanks ...for the birthday limerick... it was the best.. and very intuitive as I recently purchased a new car for Charlotte :)..now she has to learn to drive it .. :)

Darren said...

Amazing review. Really wonderful. I was with you completely.

I doubt we'll ever know the true Tom Waits and I'm fine with that. The mystery and illusion adds so much to the man and his music.

Anonymous said...

Well, I must confess to being a hopeless dullard, apparently.

I was not even a little familiar with Tom's music until I read your wonderful review, which caused me to check him out.

I love his music! Especially the quality of his voice.

He reminds me a bit of Harry Chapin, whom I saw in concert years ago. He is also a great storyteller.

Ken Armstrong said...

@Inspire: No dullard, oh no! :)

The longer it takes to find Tom, the more you gotta love him.

There's 30+ years of super music there, take him slow.

tata said...

I think I hate you. Your story was good and I hate you for it! Sigh... one day!!! One day I will have the pleasure... one day.

I don't understand how people can NOT love him - he is an amazing artist, composer, musician, storyteller and actor (I'm sure I'm currently forgetting a few, what in all my black hate for you!). I aspire to be half as great as he...

Thanks for sharing your experience (even though I hate you for it!)

(I'm just kidding about hating you.)