Tom Waits, Hammersmith Apollo

Half an hour late, but after 17 years, who cares?
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The Independent Culture

At £65 a ticket you'd hope to be left slack-jawed in wonder by stage hydraulics, flame-throwers, dancing girls and at least a dozen costume changes. But supply and demand being what it is, instead we get an old goat in a dusty suit shaking a pair of maracas. What's more, he's half an hour late, though what's another 30 minutes when you've waited 17 years?

At £65 a ticket you'd hope to be left slack-jawed in wonder by stage hydraulics, flame-throwers, dancing girls and at least a dozen costume changes. But supply and demand being what it is, instead we get an old goat in a dusty suit shaking a pair of maracas. What's more, he's half an hour late, though what's another 30 minutes when you've waited 17 years?

Strange as it may seem, Tom Waits, a performer who has remained on the fringes for nigh on 28 years, has finally won over the masses. Not only has his new album Real Gone entered both the UK and US pop charts but it reportedly took less than 30 minutes for tonight's show, his first on our shores in almost two decades, to sell out. Some tickets were being auctioned on E-bay for £1,000 a piece. Of course, this craggy-faced troubador. with over 20 albums under his belt, hardly needs our vindication though few other artists of his age can hope to enjoy such a renaissance.

After what seems like a lifetime our host arrives, hatless and guitarless, the sweat already pouring off him, and carving strange voodoo shapes into the air. If you saw him on the street, chances are you'd cross the road. With a voice that sounds like a crazed hobo after a night on the meths, he is surely as far removed from contemporary notions of the singer-songwriter as it is possible to be. He opens with the provocative "Hoist That Rag", his voice as scorched and raspy as sandpaper, before moving on to the fire-and-brimstone blues of "Make It Rain".

The early part of the show draws heavily on Real Gone which, even by Waits standards, is as raw and eccentric a piece of work as you're likely to hear this year. Waits has called his new sound "Cubist Funk", a description which doesn't quite capture its innate weirdness. Whatever you call it, it's both original and antiquated, avant-garde yet as old as the hills.

It's a while before Waits acknowledges his absence from the UK, muttering something about having been at traffic school (we laugh along while wondering what on earth he's talking about). Not that he's apologising, of course. Waits has long been indifferent to the dictates of commercialism.

By virtue of sheer weirdness, Waits is a mesmerising presence. Looking as gnarly and twisted as an old oak tree, he's the man for whom the word grizzled was invented. In terms of delivery, every word sounds like the last gasp of a dying man .His body language alone is almost make the ticket price.

He does surreal small talk, revealing how the male spider attracts a female by strumming a chord on his web. Waits really is out there on his own.

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