Tom Waits, Hammersmith Apollo, London

Old Tom's a-hollerin', and he's still got lots to say
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Like an arthouse movie suddenly selling out multiplexes, the commercial crossover of Tom Waits is one of the most gratifying and perverse sights in modern culture. It seems that the more Waits's records venture into the dark and challenging territory he has marked out since 1992's Bone Machine, the more the mainstream has embraced this artist best described as equal parts Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, Howlin' Wolf and James Brown.

Outside London's Hammersmith Apollo the touts seem only interested in buying - perhaps they have read the reports of eBay pairs selling at £1,000 plus. There are luckless fans holding desperate cardboard placards. There are celebrities only too happy to stop and sign autographs before entering with the rest of us. There is no doubt that this - Waits's first London show for 17 years - is one hot ticket.

As anticipation grows, it's hard to know what Waits, the performer, can do to justify this new-found adoration. The last time he came to town, there was the dignified respect afforded an artist of his cult standing. This time, there is a whoopin' and a hollerin' every time a song fades on the blues backing tape that is gently wafting from the stage. And then Waits walks on, his brilliant backing band pick up "Hoist That Rag", with its rhythm reminiscent of nothing other than Jabba the Hutt's show band, and you remember just what makes his live shows so special.

In place of the "And this is me" confessional we are used to from our singer-songwriters, Waits's songs are delivered by a series of characters that he inhabits using only the subtlest body language and the barest props. There is the Weimar MC, the megaphone-wielding Southern Baptist preacher, the soldier on duty in Iraq, the snake-oil salesman and the piano-bar troubadour. There are the cabaret numbers, the Weillian oom-pas and the apocalypsos. What there is little evidence of (other than when his son, Casey, plays congas on a couple of numbers) is the real Tom Waits; the happily married 55-year-old father of three who lives in relative seclusion in California's Napa Valley.

Which is exactly how it has been with Waits since his debut album in 1973 (during which time he'd tell journalists his father was a circus accordion player; he was, in fact, a teacher). An accomplished actor, somehow, bizarrely, it is the screen that Waits erects between us that makes his shows so intimate. His patter's not bad either. "Seventeen years!" someone screams. "Seventeen years," Waits replies. "But you're looking good! The three stages of man: youth, middle-age and 'You're looking good.'" His lesson to aspiring writers? Songs about fruit, houses and weather are particularly good. Put weather in a song, he tells us, and you don't have to do anything else.

The songs from Real Gone, his most Shockheaded Peter-ish album yet, form the core of the set, but there is time to dip back: his first encore is a gorgeous "Invitation to the Blues" - the passing love song to a diner waitress he wrote for 1976's Small Change. There are songs too from Rain Dogs, Frank's Wild Years, Alice and his Grammy-winning Mule Variations. Given that Waits is not averse to putting the casual listener off with that familiar sandpaper bark and percussion like old tin cans, it's easy to forget just what a brilliant songwriter he is.

He can also gently croon a tune when called to.

Many artists move towards the mainstream for acceptance, but Waits is that rarer beast: the pioneering performer who insists on the middle ground coming to him. When he has us call-and-responsing "Hail" and "Hallelujah" during "The Eyeball Kid" (a suitably twisted tale of an all-seeing eyeball that sells out the Carnegie Hall by teaching us all to see), it's one of the most strange and delectable audience participation moments ever.

The song/metaphor is fitting. When he leaves the stage (bent over bowing, hat clutched to chest, 'umble as a Dickens villain on the scrounge), you can't help wondering what Tom Waits's new-found popularity tells us about ourselves. Perhaps only the Eyeball Kid could give us the answer.