No album could truly hope to recreate the rarified experience of seeing Tom Waits live. Onstage, the 59-year-old makes magic from dime store props (pockets full of glitter, a giant magnifying glass), primal-yet-dramatic lighting, and his own crane-like body movements. But this collection, culled from a series of summer 2008 shows, comes close (a second disc even contains 35 minutes of “Tom Tales,” compiling Waits’ wonderfully esoteric stage banter).
Waits’ music is populated with outcasts and oddballs (on “Singapore” he sings of a “one-armed dwarf” and boasts “we’re all as mad as hatters here”)—a perfect fit for his craggy voice, which backfires and churns throughout like busted machinery. The singer embodies heartbreak on a weathered “Fannin Street” and drives the locomotive-chug of “Goin’ Out West” with his smokestack howls. A delicate arrangement by his crack backing band brings out the fragility in “The Part You Throw Away” (note the gorgeous flamenco solo), while a strutting “Make It Rain” finds Waits puffing his chest in defiance of gathering storm clouds “(I’m close to heaven,” he sings, “Crushed at the gate”). Like most live albums, the sonics can be hit-or-miss, but that’s a minor quibble with a collection of songs this strong.