When Tom Waits was releasing impressive noirish albums that had to be listened to in the dark, his concerts were right in line with his current disc. He never felt the need to connect the dots for listeners from “Old ’55” to “The Heart of Saturday Night” to “Romeo Is Bleeding” — he was all about being in the moment in the late 1970s, early ’80s. But that was before MTV and Waits’ reclusiveness in the ’90s.
The hook to Waits’ edition of “Storytellers” is “Mule Variations,” only his third release this decade and, by preliminary accounts, on its way to becoming his bestselling disc. “Storytellers” allows Waits to showcase some of the new material — “House Where Nobody Lives,” one of the finest ballads he has ever written, is fortunately included — but those behind the program also want to show his history. Hence, Waits is heard barking his “Downtown Train” (a hit for Rod Stewart); “Old ’55,” which the Eagles recorded; and “Jersey Girl,” which Bruce Springsteen turned into a concert fave.
Waits’ biggest problem in this “Storytellers” seg is that he has to play himself, come up with anecdotes and tell them as they relate to his songs. “Some of these I don’t remember where they came from,” he tells the crowd gathered in a faux-nightclub setting. “I’ll make something up — it might be better.”
And so Waits stumbles through his stories, often losing his place, as he turns non sequiturs into introductions for his convincing renditions of seven songs.
For newcomers, the 1988 concert film “Big Time” is a far better introduction. In that pic, Waits is seen as a carnival barker, his voice ragged — gravely is a lenient description — but he’s in a comfortable role that doesn’t require as much self-exposure. Part of the beauty of Waits is his ability to go in and out of his various down-on-their-luck characters with ease, and avoid painting any picture that would reflect on his soul.
Beginning of the “Storyteller” show is loaded with far too many edits and cutaways — apparently an attempt to set the scene. Waits’ laconic music requires a slower pace that comes into play about one-third of the way in. He must have told a lot of stories that night, as Waits is seen, in black and white, offering up wacky quips as each segment heads into commercial. Special needs either more talking or more music to bring it into line with the more illuminating editions of this usually interesting series.