Watch Big Time, the Concert Film Capturing Tom Waits on His Best Tour Ever (1988)

Here at Open Cul­ture, we’ve often fea­tured the many sides of Tom Waits: actor, poet­ry read­er, favored David Let­ter­man guest. More rarely, we’ve post­ed mate­r­i­al ded­i­cat­ed to show­cas­ing him prac­tic­ing his pri­ma­ry craft, writ­ing songs and singing them. But when a full-fledged Tom Waits con­cert does sur­face here, pre­pare to set­tle in for an unre­lent­ing­ly (and enter­tain­ing­ly) askew musi­cal expe­ri­ence. In March, we post­ed Bur­ma Shave, an hour-long per­for­mance from the late sev­en­ties in which Waits took on “the per­sona of a down-and-out barfly with the soul of a Beat poet.” Today, we fast-for­ward a decade to Big Time, by which point Waits could express the essences of “avant-garde com­pos­er Har­ry Partch, Howl­in’ Wolf, Frank Sina­tra, Astor Piaz­zol­la, Irish tenor John McCor­ma­ck, Kurt Weill, Louis Pri­ma, Mex­i­can norteño bands and Vegas lounge singers.” That evoca­tive quote comes from Big Time’s own press notes, as excerpt­ed by Dan­ger­ous Minds, which calls the view­ing expe­ri­ence “like enter­ing a sideshow tent in Tom Waits’s brain.”

Watch the 90-minute con­cert film in its entire­ty, though, and you may not find it evoca­tive enough. In 1987, Waits had just put out the album Franks Wild Years, which explores the expe­ri­ence of his alter-ego Frank O’Brien, whom Waits called “a com­bi­na­tion of Will Rogers and Mark Twain, play­ing accor­dion — but with­out the wis­dom they pos­sessed.” The year before, the singer actu­al­ly wrote and pro­duced a stage play built around the char­ac­ter, and the Franks Wild Years tour through North Amer­i­ca and Europe made thor­ough use of Waits’ the­atri­cal bent in that era. Its final two shows, at San Fran­cis­co’s Warfield The­atre and Los Ange­les’ Wiltern The­atre, along with footage from gigs in Dublin, Stock­holm and Berlin, make up the bulk of Big Time’s mate­r­i­al. As for its sen­si­bil­i­ty, well, even Waits fans may feel inse­cure, and hap­pi­ly so, about quite what to expect. (Fans of The Wire, I should note, will find some­thing famil­iar indeed in this show’s ren­di­tion of “Way Down in the Hole.”)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tom Waits, Play­ing the Down-and-Out Barfly, Appears in Clas­sic 1978 TV Per­for­mance

Tom Waits Reads Charles Bukows­ki

Tom Waits and David Let­ter­man: An Amer­i­can Tele­vi­sion Tra­di­tion

Tom Waits Shows Us How Not to Get a Date on Valentine’s Day

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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