After grunting into the same bottle of gin for years, the prince of the paupers has turned his world-weary beat-hip method of acting into good-to-great art by causing wildly disparate cultures to collide on his turf. Fronting your everyday, average strip joint/jazzbo/expressionist/mariachi/polka/cabaret/guerrilla-theater/blues band, Waits and his touchingly goulish cast of brown-bag philosopher-kings have the acuity to sense that real rebels have names like Weill, Brecht, and Beefheart, not Dean, Brando, and Kerouac. Waits was writing songs as one-act plays long before the current Frank’s Wild Years, a showcase of compositions from the 1986 theater project that had its world premiere at Steppenwolf. Even though some of his new album is more distantly “theatrical” than its two stunning predecessors, Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, it continues Waits’s bold mission to reconstitute a fragmented vocabulary of American popular music. Waits takes his rusty drainpipe of a voice through surges of gorgeous balladry, but before you can dismiss him as Tony Bennett with a brain, he transports you to surreal street corners where people with big dreams find the short distance between the bright lights and the cold ground. Besides providing the ultimate Halloween party, his upcoming concerts will be a perfect way for stock investors to get used to their new surroundings. Tonight and Saturday, 8 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; 236-4300.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeffery Newbury.