Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
The program was sweet-and-sour Tuesday night at the Warner: Leon Redbone for an understated, nostalgic warmup and Tom Waits as the main attraction - angular, frenetic, singing with agonized intensity in a voice that sounded like it had been marinating in muscatel since the Depression.
The hall was packed - in fact, at 8 p.m., when the show was scheduled to begin (45 minutes before the lights actually went down), 13th Street outside the theater looked like the beginning of a riot. This is a hopeful sign for Washington's musical taste. By all the probabilities, these two singers should be minor cult figures, able to fit their fans comfortably into a small, intimate hall like the Childe Harold. But the fact is that they are not only good, they are unique, and it is encouraging to see their uniqueness recognized.
It's hard to pin down exactly what constitutes their uniquenes. You might say (oversimplifying) that Redbone does imitations of a wind-up phonograph well supplied with slightly obscure records of the 1920s, and Waits does drunk imitations. Both are very funny at times. Redbone is also intensely and obviously musical. With Waits, the musicianship is equally intense, but you might overlook it unless you are watching closely for what happens behind the circus act that is his show's surface.
The song about "a place called Burma Shave," for example, in which Waits does an imitation of a sort of 1970s James Dean, determined to go out of pavement and offering a ride to a girl with "swizzle-stick legs" whom he meets at a gas station. Behind the mugging the one-liners, the leather jacket and the scenery (gas pumps on the stage, and the back end of a car, tail-light glowing), the song includes a fine performance of "summertime" with a great trumpet solo.
Waits has a whole hatful of personas: a skid-row derelict, a hero of the streets in the frenzied "Romeo Is Bleeding," the disillusioned denizen of a cocktail lounge, a huckster free-associating every advertising cliche you have ever heard and rising to a frenzied invocation of "money, money, money, for minutes on end (he almost makes love to a dollar bill, panting "Oooh. Big George," to the pictue on it). The Outer trimmings vary considerably in his various stage personalities, but all have one thing in common: A gaping hole right in the middle of the ego.
In contrast, Redbone is smooth, cute, totally controlled: the climax of his act Tuesday was "Shine On, Harvest Moon," Performed exactly as it might have been done 50 years ago. It really wouldn't amount to much at all, except that it was perfect.