Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tom Waits "Big Time" Screening

In celebration of Tom Waits' 60th birthday, the continuing Magic Bus Movie Night series hosted his classic concert movie, Big Time, last night.

Sponsored by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Magic Bus screens music-related concerts, clips and documentaries on the first Thursday of every month at the 9'th St. Media Center.

David Smay, author of the Continuum Press 33 1/3 for Swordfishtrombones hosted the event, inserting little tidbits of Tom Waits knowledge into every other sentence he spoke, and opening the movie with trivia, and a bunch of infinitely entertaining, miscellaneous Tom Waits-related clips including his cover of Daniel Johnston's nararration of King Kong set to clips of the film, an animation for the track from Orphans of Waits reciting a chldren's story (note: don't let Tom Waits near your children) and a dog-food commercial Waits did in one of the more "down-and-out" moments of his career (Is there anything that wouldn't sound cooler with Waits narrating? He's like the Morgan Freeman of hipsters).

As for the movie itself, Big Time captures what was quite possibly the greatest touring band Waits has ever had, with the barbed and harsh guitar stylings of Marc Ribot, San Francisco wind-instrument guru Ralph Carney and Greg Cohen of John Zorn fame on bass. If those names aren't familiar, all you have to know is that the performances prominently feature the output of Waits at the peak of his career (the Swordfishtrombones/Rain Dogs/Frank's Wild Years trilogy of the 80's).

A carnivalized version of "Rain Dogs" finds the whole band slowly congregating into the center of the stage for a gypsy-groove celebration bridge while Waits shows off his dancing chops, "Down in The Hole" finds him eerily echoing Daniel Day Lewis from There Will Be Blood and classics like "Clap Hands" and "Time" are delivered with even more body, texture, lushness and flow than their studio counterparts.

Performances are intercut by Tom Waits' character-features, involving hilarious on-stage rants about used erotica featuring girls without skin, a woman getting pregnant through a bullet previously pierced through the testicle of a soldier and a dire need for wigs and novelties in Indiana (cigarette lighters the size of encyclopedias!), as well as surreal shorts with Waits' alter-ego, Frank, as the main character, no doubt a product of the fruitful collaboration at the time between Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan.

Big Time does the best job possible of summing up exactly what was so special about Waits in the 80's, from his dark humor and oddball-avant characterization to his incorporation of technical proficiency in the realms of completely American forms such as blues and folk. A Tom Waits performance is not only a musical event, but a sort of "fusion" art engagement between stage-acting, comedy, art and sounds. Concert movies don't always justify their existence, but for those who've never had a chance to see Waits live, this is well-documented argument for his nomination as the greatest performer alive.

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