My eyes were burning despite the dark sunglasses and overcast sky. I was navigating my nondescript rental car down Highway 29, keeping an eye out for an In-N-Out Burger, when I realized I had missed the turn-off for Interstate 80. The fog was being ushered west (back to the bay) by a sun eager to shine on a Sunday afternoon in Vallejo, but the fog in my head wasn’t so easily moved. I had only one purpose for being a thousand miles from home, everything else was supposed to be ancillary. So how did I lose sight of that purpose?
Why was I hungover? Why was I late? Why had I made the same mistake that I’ve made so many times before? Why didn’t I just leave that last beer in the fridge? Why didn’t we order a pizza instead of cracking another bottle? Why, why, why?
These are questions only fools ask themselves. The answers don’t matter. All I do know is that it was long after the last nighthawks had left the diner, but not long before the early birds came calling again, that we lay our heavy heads down to rest. And that it was only a few hours later that I found myself on Highway 37.
The car was now heading the right direction, but my thoughts were still scattered (and tattered) like day-old confetti. My insatiable stomach didn’t have the patience to wait for that yellow neon sign, so I pulled into one of the less-fresh joints, ordered something greasy, and swallowed it with a few shots of sugary soda. This process did nothing more than redistribute the discomfort upward — now that I’d fed the savage beast, the pounding in my head decided to test the limits of the Richter scale. Staring out at another sixty miles of highway through vibrating eyes, I couldn’t help but find this all extremely appropriate. It was almost Halloween and Tom Waits was going to be performing at the 27th Annual Bridge School Festival. What better way to celebrate those two things than to show up as one of his characters? Here I am world, one of the unlucky ones who asks foolish questions — you can find me in the gutter, ‘for I am a rain dog, too‘.
The house lights were extinguished just after 7pm, and for the first time all day, the patrons of the Bridge School Festival found themselves in the dark. Having performed my penance earlier in the day, the darkness found me well. The sun had burned away my sins from the night before and I was left with something that can only be described as a manic anticipation. Literally twitching in my seat, with dream set lists running through my head, the seconds were dragging on for eternity. I was five hours into my day at Shoreline Amphitheater, but I seriously thought the few seconds between Neil Young’s intro and Tom Waits’ first song were going to be my undoing.
And then he was there — black suit, pork pie hat, and arms flailing like a deranged preacher realizing he’s at the gates of Hell — howling about ‘raised right men‘ and ‘happy hens‘ like a junkyard dog on a short chain. We were no longer in Mountain View, California. We were no longer in the physical world. We had entered the mind of Tom Waits.
Some people were so ecstatic that they couldn’t help but yell at inappropriate times. Some couldn’t help but stomp their feet and try to dance to the broken melody — like dancing to a car crash. Some couldn’t help but laugh. The laughing was the best. It’s something you only hear at festivals. It comes from those people who don’t know (or don’t understand) Tom Waits’ style. They think it’s a joke at first. But it doesn’t take long for them to realize they are surrounded by believers, and then the laughs turn into the nervous kind — like they suddenly realize that they arn’t at a Halloween party — they realize these people are for real. Those poor souls either get on board and join the cult, or they quietly sit down and hope it all ends soon.
Watching the performance last night was like watching a band play in two places at once. This was a benefit concert for children with severe speech and physical impairments and some of those children were up on the stage throughout the show. They didn’t only have the best view, but their presence helped make sure we never lost sight of the purpose for the performance. And Tom Waits was singing about places that exist in every day life — Chicago, Singapore, old houses and family reunions. And yes, that was Les Claypool on upright bass and David Hidalgo on guitar. All of these things are anchored in the real world. Yet somehow it’s like you’re seeing them through distorted eyes. At some point in his life, Tom Waits decided he wanted to protect his identity. He created a persona that he could put on like a mask when he was interacting with people outside his inner circle. His performances are not as much a presentation of that persona as they are an invitation to look at the world from inside that mask. Nothing has changed except your perception, yet that makes all the difference.
The performance lasted just under an hour — enough time to accommodate 10 songs and a few of Tom’s famous tidbits. These “facts” and “stories” are a staple of every show. This time around we were educated on gorilla birth control, the decimation of the world’s food supply by rats, and Neil Young’s bad investment in an eel, donuts and fish-scale restaurant. These stories were not only humorous, but they had the added advantage of further confusing those in the audience who arn’t familiar with Mr. Waits.
As for the song selection, it’s always more about diversity than it is about any particular song. A good Tom Waits performance is one where you get to see the many temperaments that make up this carefully crafted persona. The initial announcement for this show led me to believe he would be focused solely on material from Bad As Me, so it was welcome surprise when “Raised Right Men” led into “Singapore”. But it wasn’t until he sat down at the piano for “Lucky Day” that I was able to breathe free. I love the drunken pirate and the psychotic ringmaster, but they are in the best company with the hobo lounge singer. “Lucky Day” led into “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and the picture was complete. It could have ended right there and it would have been one of the best shows of my life, but we were in for a few more…including my personal favorite from the new album, “Last Leaf”.
After a jazzy rendition of “Come on Up to the House”, the gracious host introduced his band and left the stage. The house lights came up and everyone was changed forever. It was only a couple songs into the Queens of the Stone Age set before Josh Homme admitted as much — “Tom Waits was fucking awesome! It’s all gravy now. As much gravy as you can take. I stood on the side of the stage like…” He didn’t finish that sentence. He didn’t have to. He just shook his head with a look of disbelief and we all knew exactly what he meant.
video credit to Nik Houser
Obviously I went to the Bridge School Benefit to see Tom Waits, but I was there all day and there were many highlights. Jenny Lewis performing Rilo Kiley’s “Silver Lining”. Heart covering Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song” — Anne Wilson’s voice is still incredible. Fun. was fun as always. Elvis Costello could’ve had a better setlist, but the man’s still one of the great ones. My Morning Jacket were good, but bringing everyone out to cover “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” in memory of Lou Reed was great — it was a moving tribute to a lost legend. Queens of the Stone Age were unexpectedly great as a semi-acoustic band, and CSNY can now be crossed off the list of bands I’ve never seen.
It was only my 2nd Bridge School Benefit Concert, so I don’t have much to compare it to, but I’d call it a success. I’m just happy I survived and got home to talk about it. Now it’s time to sleep for a very long time.
Raised Right Men
Talking at the Same Time
Tom Traubert’s Blues
Lucinda / Ain’t Goin Down
Come On Up to the House