Tom Waits' first two albums, 1973's Closing Time and 1974's The Heart of Saturday Night, documented his estimable strengths as a songwriter, but they didn't always give much of a sense of the personality that came through in his live performances. In front of an audience, Waits transformed himself into something resembling a minor character from a Jack Kerouac novel, a witty but bedraggled hipster from the seedy side of Los Angeles. His third album, 1975's Nighthawks at the Diner, was designed to show off Waits as an entertainer as well as a tunesmith; producer Bones Howe set up a nightclub facsimile in a recording studio, paired Waits with a solid band of jazz-inclined studio musicians, brought in an audience, and recorded what was in essence his first live album. As entertainment, Nighthawks at the Diner is one of Waits' most thoroughly enjoyable albums. He's clearly jazzed by the presence of an audience, and his skills as a storyteller are marvelous. Much like Lou Reed's Live: Take No Prisoners, this is an album where the between-song patter sometimes outshines the songs, and there's no arguing that Waits is a very funny guy who plays brilliantly to a crowd, spinning eccentric, evocative tales of life on the bad side of town that make it all sound like a ball. The band is excellent, too; bassist Jim Hughart, drummer Bill Goodwin, pianist Mike Melvoin, and sax player Pete Christlieb give Waits the ideal three-a.m. ambience to bring the songs to life. If Nighthawks at the Diner has a flaw, it's that Waits' beatnik spiel sometimes overwhelms the music, and a number of the "songs" are more spoken word routines than anything else. But "Better Off Without a Wife" and "Nobody" show he hadn't lost the ability to write a memorable song, sing it all the way through, and make it connect. And if this plays more like a "show" than a "concert," it's a show you'd gladly pay to hear more than once. Nighthawks at the Diner is a must for Tom Waits fans, and while beginners might not get as strong a sense of his music as they would from many of his other albums, it's hard to imagine anyone not being charmed by it.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming