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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Waits Backs Away From His Best

Times Pop Music Critic

As apparently driven as Tom Waits is to be great, he often seems even more obsessed with never appearing ordinary. It’s a conflict that doesn’t always work to his advantage, including during parts of his New Year’s Eve concert at the sold-out Wiltern Theatre.

No doubt about it: this was no ordinary show, thanks to a manic-cum-theatrical performance style in which Waits twists his body into the form of various pretzels to underscore the sidelights and highlights in his rich, aggressive blues-pop compositions.

Yet, the sold-out evening fell short of the fully absorbing experience required for it to be labeled great--there were times when the game plan tended to obscure the greatness.

Here’s a man--now in his late 30s--who has written some of the most eloquent and affecting

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songs of his generation, yet who has tended for much of the last decade to make those songs compete with--or even take a back seat to--a larger and more uneven collection of sympathetic, neon-lit sketches about outcasts and misfits.

Perhaps Waits fears his “conventional” songs about people’s dreams and regrets are too sentimental to be considered art, or maybe they come too easily to fully satisfy him as a writer.

While he found a way in some of his early, mid-'70s songs to deal with underdogs without sacrificing sweeping, universal emotions, he has tended in recent years toward more isolated figures and situations--songs that sometimes seem more concerned with celebrating their uniqueness than expressing engaging emotions.

There is high ambition and Waits is blessed with an adoring cult audience that finds freshness and wit in his music and persona, but he deserves a much wider audience.

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Where many of today’s most acclaimed writers work in a rock-accented style particularly suited for this era, Waits writes with such grace and craft that his best work--like that of Paul Simon and Randy Newman--could compete against the best of any generation of American pop composers.

At the Wiltern on Saturday, Waits seemed in a generous and--for him--relaxed mood. To guarantee a festive atmosphere, Waits placed a huge red clock behind him on stage and led the crowd in a countdown as the midnight hour approached.

He also supplemented his own songs with some classy covers, including Little Willie John’s “Fever,” Burke-Johnston’s “Pennies From Heaven” and Leiber-Stoller’s “Hound Dog.”

Waits, too, brought out saxophonist John Lurie (the actor-musician who once headed the Lounge Lizards) to sit in on a few tunes with Waits’ classy five-piece band.

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Still, the lanky songwriter--who sings in a voice so charred it has been described as sounding like the bottom of a heavily used ash tray looks--was most effective when he set aside both the manic mannerisms and off-beat tales to concentrate on more haunting songs--songs he might call “conventional.”

Playing a guitar and barely moving, Waits closed the concert by singing about chasing elusive dreams with a careful, caressing vocal that seemed as gentle as the song itself (“Time”).

It echoed earlier moments when Waits sang such other endearing numbers as “The Heart of Saturday Night"--a 1974 song about looking for love or identity--and “Train Song,” a 1987 look at running without purpose. Sample line from the latter: “It was a train that took me away from here / But a train can’t bring me home.”

However flashy and often entertaining the rest of the evening, it was in those soft, intimate moments when Waits’ artistry shone the brightest--and it is frustrating that he doesn’t emphasize that side of his music more. There’s never anything ordinary about properly showcasing greatness.

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