Review Summary: Tom Waits 'live' and so, so good.
In 1975 Tom Waits was still fairly unknown, and there was a mutual feeling that a live album would capture the personality of the beatnik stageman. This plan was executed in the best way – a concert was recorded in a New York studio. A large room in the back of Record Plant Studios was set up with a stage and tables, drinks on the house. The best of four performances are mixed together on Nighthawks at the Diner
, and create a world of smoky nightclubs on late foggy nights.
This kind of control allows for fantastic sound. Engineers could manipulate the environment to their liking, and the natural balance of audience to band is perfect. Tom's voice permeates the mix just enough to ensure his words are heard clearly.
The band is spot-on, playing tight, dynamic, and smooth jazz. Tenor sax, piano, upright bass, and a kit create a combo well equipped for the job. These guys were on Heart of Saturday Night too, and their chops hold true on this live effort.
Tom greets the crowd,
Well, an inebriated good evening to you all.
Welcome to Rapheal's Silver Cloud Lounge.
Slip me a little crimson Jimson, give me the low down Brown,
I want some scoop Betty Boop. I'm on my way into town.
His off-the-cuff remarks and verses are really what make this record special. With an intro before almost every song, the band works out the tune while Tom says what's on his mind. The intro to Better off Without a Wife
tells how Tom sometimes just want's to call himself up and have a romantic evening.
Emotional Weather Report
is the first song on the record. Waits' mental health status is pondered over a walking bass and piano shots. This track brings out the theme of solitary late-night life he seems inclined to sing about, and continues with On a Foggy Night
A highlight on this record is definitely Eggs and Sausage
, dedicated to “all the gypsy hacks and insomniacs” in all-night diners. With piano flourishes and soulful sax lines this track moves at at a
deep blusey pace.
Big Joe and Phantom 309
is the last song on the album, and Tom brings the crowd into a tale about hitchhiking with a trucker hero. The story ends in a truckstop, yet another diner in Tom's late-night life.
The album finishes with “I gotta go see a man about a dog. See you later,” a simple goodbye from Tom. He thanks the crowd and the band while the jazz combo lays down some jive, and brings everything to a big finish.
The atmosphere maintained on this album is witty, dark, and a little absurd – really the best qualities of Tom Waits. At around seventy minutes it's a lengthy listen, especially since paying attention to Wait's words is half the point, but well worth it. Maybe not the best place to start for new listeners, but this record gives an intimate picture of one of the most unique American songwriters of the century's live personality.
Oh, and to make it more awesome, Edward Hopper's 1942 painting Nighthawks
was inspiration for the album's mood, and a burlesque dancer warmed up for Tom Waits on all four performances.