Tom Waits - Glitter & Doom LiveIt’s dark in here. Really dark. That’s probably for the best, because it makes it hard to see the creepy and crawly things. The slick and the slimy things. And that’s just the characters at the bar. The place smells like a unique blend of stale cigarettes, cheap perfume, and over-saturated urinal cakes. Over in the corner, lit only by a bare 40-watt bulb that someone has thrown a red stocking over, is the band. The music they’re playing sounds like something out of a carnival in hell. They’re led by a gravel-throated rabble rouser, and the moment he opens his mouth to sing, everyone in the place turns toward him as one:

“Well they call me William the Pleaser
I sold opium, fireworks and lead
Now I’m telling my troubles to strangers
When the shadows get long I’ll be dead”

Leave it to Tom Waits to let all the also-rans do their thing before releasing the album of the year as Thanksgiving looms. Glitter & Doom Live (Anti-) collects performances from Waits’ 2008 summer tour and weaves them into a seamless whole. The album’s 17 tracks were recorded in ten different cities in Europe and the United States and then put together to recreate the experience of a single concert. The songs come  predominantly from Waits’ later-day masterpieces such as 1992’s Bone Machine, Real Gone from 2004, and the majestic Orphans box set, which was released in 2006. Waits doesn’t totally neglect his earlier career, though, as “Singapore” from 1985’s Rain Dogs is also included.

As one might expect from an artist of Waits’ stature, all of the songs have been re-imagined for live performance, a process which is helped immeasurably by the competence of the five-piece band that accompanied him on tour. The band includes Wait’s son Casey on drums, and features a guest appearance from his son Sullivan on sax and clarinet. Waits weaves a circuitous route from hard blues to ballads, jazz to cabaret, r&b to rock, and the band is equal to the journey he leads them on. The longstanding image of the derelict hobo baying at the moon is all well and good, but Tom Waits is clearly an artist who values his legacy, and cares deeply about his work.

“Goin’ Out West” sounds like the unnatural bastard offspring of the marriage of Mark Bolan and Don Van Vliet. It was recorded in Tulsa on June 25, 2008, and features Waits at his shambolic, howling best as he extols the rather dubious virtues of life on the west coast. Apparently the appeal of a place where Tony Franciosa used to date his mother is irresistible. It’s one of several songs on the album that feature wonderful blues harp work by Vincent Henry. The driving, often terrifying intensity of the surrounding material only serves to add to the impact when Waits slows down for a rare ballad. Such is the case with the mournful Texas tale, “Fannin Street”, which was recorded in Knoxville, TN on June 29, 2008.

The second disc of this set, “Tom Tales,” is a compilation of moments from the piano set that was a part of the show each night. Included on the disc are nearly 40 minutes of Waits’ ruminations on a variety of subjects including vultures, rats, some rather bizarre eBay purchases, elephants, the laws of Oklahoma, shrimp, parrots, the smell of the moon, romantic spiders, and the derivation of the term “graveyard shift.” It’s consistently interesting, often compelling, and always very funny. Regrettably, Glitter & Doom Live is short on song performances from the piano set, but stay tuned to the end of “Tom Tales” for a very nice surprise.

The songs on Glitter & Doom Live cover a variety of topics, from hanged men, to sword swallowers, to dance instructors. In other words, just what we have grown to expect from Tom Waits. Paste Magazine recently named Waits one of the best live performers of the ’00s. If there was ever any doubt about that claim, this album puts the lie to it. Beautifully recorded and mastered, Glitter & Doom Live is going to find its way to the top of a lot of year-end lists, including mine.