The magic hat was a visual metaphor for what Waits does so well in music: refiguring old or even obsolete musical forms in his own hyper-dramatic style until they dazzle in new, often disconcerting ways. This show, the first of a journey that will take Waits south and east to cities he hasn't visited in decades (like Phoenix), offered ample evidence of his core techniques in a fan-pleasing set that also had a few surprises.
If Waits could only claim songs that borrow most purely from these coffers, like the testifying "Jesus Gonna Be Here," you'd have to call him a minstrel. His froggy voice, so evocative of Louis Armstrong, and his streetwise diction show the heavy influence of the "White Negro" era of American hip.
But Waits is far too aware of himself as a constructed character to fall into that trap. At 58, he's accumulated a huge songbook that explores many aspects of the American vernacular, from noir fiction to the carnival barker's cries, from country music to Stephen Foster-style parlor songs. Just when it seemed he was going to play the soul man all night, he'd switch it up with a Brechtian musical-theater piece like "Rain Dogs" or a word jazz-style story song like "Murder in the Red Barn," based on a bloody Victorian-era scandal but rendered in a tone that recalls Waits' friend, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
Waits and his band moved neatly from one corner of his imaginary America to another. Guitarist Omar Torrez, multi-instrumentalist Henry and keyboardist Patrick Warren ably followed the twisted melodic lines and stop-start rhythms Waits loves, anchored by the refreshingly light-fingered rhythm section of Seth Ford-Young and drummer Casey Waits (his son). Less bold than previous Waits bands, this ensemble had more agility, and it inspired the singer to try new things.
Waits is underrated as a vocalist. His baritone is easy to caricature, but a lengthy concert like this one offers a chance to hear what else he can do. He often capped a song with an eerie falsetto; on a couple of songs, with chugging arrangements that seemed like tributes to the late Bo Diddley, he adopted the hiccuping style of early Elvis Presley and his lessers. And he was frankly emotional on the ballads that demand that approach, especially the quieter ones he played during a mini-set at the piano, putting aside his quirks to go for the heart of each song. He even played human beatbox on a few numbers, though, thank goodness, he never rapped.
Over the years, Waits has developed a stage presence that complements his penchant for vocal disguise. Following the lineage that connects Japanese Kabuki theater to Bertolt Brecht's Theater of Alienation, Waits mimics the actions of the soul man or the preacher until they become surreal. His tour's stage sets help put the audience off balance; the current one features cubistic red lights, a wall sculpture made of primitive loudspeakers and gramophone cylinders, and some kind of dust that Waits kicked up to great effect.
And like any good midway barker/preacher/barfly, he told jokes. His current batch mostly involves imaginary laws. In Phoenix, he said, "No kiss can last longer than three minutes, and horses must wear diapers." And "in Baltimore, it's illegal to take a lion to the movies."
The America in Tom Waits' head is certainly strange, but it remains a delightful place to spend an evening.