(Hey Nutshell fans! Yes, I haven’t updated in two months; I’ve been out in the world for a spell. I actually have three partially completed posts in the Drafts folder, that I might work on finishing in the near future. But this site has not yet been abandoned.)
Last weekend I was at the Tom Waits concert in Columbus, Ohio. This means that I’ve now seen two members of my personal pantheon of legendary singer-songwriters live: I caught Elvis Costello in Toronto on two different occasions as an undergraduate. The two performers make for an interesting contrast.
Costello, as a performer, is warm. As cool and biting as his lyrics can be, when he’s up on stage he makes you feel like there’s a connection there. Part of it’s in his banter, but I think he mostly carries it in his voice: rich and expressive, even with its rough patches and flaws. (The last time I saw him, his final song was sung without a microphone; he projected his voice to the very back of Massey Hall, and filled the room with his personality.)
Waits preserves a little more distance. Of course his singing voice isn’t conventionally… well… it isn’t conventional. It does, however, do the job; he’s as much of a virtuoso as anyone else on that stage with his instrument of choice. (And the back-up band was tight; the guitarist and the winds specialist, in particular, really had some stuff to strut.) But Waits is, self-consciously, a showman, and you never forget that this is pageantry.
Both performers, as you’d expect from artists with such a long catalogue, delight in putting new twists on old songs. Both of the Costello shows I saw featured a single accompanist (Steve Nieve on piano and keyboards), and so stripped-down classics were the order of the day(s). While Waits (disappointingly, at least to me) didn’t reach back past Swordfishtrombones, he did provide some clever reworkings of some of his more recent pieces.
All in all, though, I felt a little let-down at the end of the show last weekend. A lot of the experience now seems fleeting, and I can’t remember much more than a moment here and a moment there. Which isn’t to say that I’d pass up the opportunity to see him in concert again… but next time, I think I’ll try harder to persuade people to come with me. What I really felt the lack of was someone at the end of the show to compare notes with, to talk about the little musical jokes with.
Next time, perhaps.