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Remembering a classic Austin City Limits performance from the unstoppable Tom Waits


Few artists have had longevity in the same way as Tom Waits has. A musician who, since first releasing his debut in 1973, has been an everpresent feature in the world of music which that has seen Waits flirt with the different worlds of jazz, blues and rock over the last half a century which has put the one-of-a-kind artist truly in his own lane.

This set taken from Austin City Limits in 1978 is one of the most definitive in his illustrious decade-spanning career and it arrived at a truly fascinating period which makes the show of even greater intrigue.

The programme is an American institution, one that is still running today and was launched all the way back in 1976. When the show was in its infancy, the format saw two different artists featured on each 60-minute episode and each musician would perform in a half-hour slot. However, what made Waits’ appearance so special is that he was given the whole hour to himself and created arguably the greatest 60 minutes of television in the history of the show.

Waits’ iconic set was recorded on December 5, 1978, at the University of Texas for a 1979 broadcast of Austin City Limits. The program was later released on DVD as Burma Shave. Waits is joined by Herbert Hardesty on trumpet and saxophone, Arthur Richards providing assistance on guitar, Greg Cohen on bass, and John Thomassie on drumming duty. 

The 2011 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who has made a career out of adopting different musical styles as well as personas throughout his career, was at the peak of his powers. When this set took place, he was going through one of his many stylistic revamps following the release of his much-cherished Blue Valentine album.

That record arrived as a poignant moment in his career, one that displayed the prolific nature of his creative drive as Waits successfully created the album in just six sessions throughout the summer of ’78. Halfway through the aforementioned sessions, Waits made the bold decision to replace the musicians who had worked on the album so far as he tried to escape the jazz-orientated sound that they were concocting alongside him. He then switched from a piano to an electric guitar as his main instrument, an attempt to capture this new sound he envisaged for Blue Valentine.

Waits would then treat the Texan audience to a 13-track set which began with a cover of the magnificent Eddie Cochrane number ‘Summertime Blues’ and also saw Waits air Blue Valentine tracks ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ and ‘Romeo Is Bleeding’.

This period in Waits’ career was described as weird and obscure by critics at the time but, as years passed, Blue Valentine would become one of the more beloved records among his international cult fanbase who respected his innate tendency to go against the grain and never be one for seeking commercial dividends.

Watch his stunning 53-minute set below which captures the true artistry of Tom Waits.