To a proud and initiated few, the name “Tom Waits” summons musical memories of sad stories and morbid ballads accompanied by a surreal array of unconventional instruments (such as screeching horns and clanging drums), all masterminded by a gravel-voice, howling madman. To others, it conjures images of an indecipherable singer who sounds like Cookie Monster.

The mad, brilliant, and undeniably unique Tom Waits returned to Ohio for the first time in years as the last stop on his latest tour, to promote an upcoming three-CD set of rarities entitled Orphans. The tour ran from Aug. 1 to 13 and consisted of nine shows, the last two a pair in Akron and Cleveland. The Cleveland show, a last-minute surprise set at the House of Blues (scheduled for immediately after Akron), caught numerous fans off-guard and crowds began lining up outside the Akron Civic Theatre hours early because Waits sells out venues with frightening speed.

Inside the actual venue, fans were surprisingly relaxed as they were ushered to their seats and made to wait for a half-hour. Waits’ touring band members came out from behind a clear curtain that showcased each of them in silhouette: guitarist Duke Robillard, bassist Larry Taylor, pianist/xylophonist/jack-of-all trades Bent Clausen, and Waits’ son Casey, serving as the band’s drummer. Waits stalked on last and posed like a crucified scarecrow for a moment before grabbing the mic and grunting, “Good evening!”

What followed was a barrage of twenty-three songs as Waits screamed, shouted and shimmied across the stage, interrupted only by his devotees’ catcalls and an occasional break to catch his breath. Perhaps the sweetest moment of the show was when most of the band exited, leaving only Waits and Taylor, a bass and a piano on a stage that seemed smaller and felt more intimate. Waits used this staging to embrace his inner comedian, and launched a hilarious string of stories at the audience. After his comment that the venue sold out in ten minutes was met by some 2,000 cheering voices, he smiled and said, “Yeah, I was pretty angry too.”

Waits chose a more eclectic mix of his material, eschewing classics like the hard rock song ‘Goin’ Out West’ (revered for its use in the cult film Fight Club) for calmer tunes like 1986’s ‘Clap Hands’ (which every audience member clapped along for) and the surreal ‘Eyeball Kid,’ which tells the story of a circus ringleader’s relationship with a living, breathing, baby-sized eyeball.

Waits did two encores, leaving the venue twenty minutes before he was set to play another show in Cleveland; reports say that concert got underway at two the next morning. Hipster moviemaker and longtime Waits collaborator Jim Jarmusch, himself a native son of Akron, was present and cheering at both venues.

Speaking without my bias as a Waits-aholic clouding my critical opinion, I can safely say the night was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. One can only hope Tom will tour at least once more before I have kids to take to the show.

(This piece was originally printed in the Kenyon Collegian, August 24, 2006.  Click here to listen to a recoding from the night of the concert.)