[18 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Tori Amos is a lot like Jay-Z.
There have always been whispers or veiled threats about slowing down, not playing live anymore, or retirement. Last year, on her American Doll Posse world tour, Amos herself made it sound as though the end was nigh. But like Jay-Z, Tori keeps coming back and showing everybody who the real pimp is, or as her Posse song “Big Wheel” points out, the real “M-I-L-F”. It’s a hard-knock life, to be sure, but very few women are capable of sustaining the kind of career that Tori, the central architect of a sprawling musical villa, has built from the ground up with a strong vision and the skills that pay the bills. And even though each tour might seem like the last, these rumors of early retirement are always veiled half-truths.
Amos, like magic, continues to spring back with new albums, re-worked songs, and something new. It is a functional creative cycle for Amos and her family (tech wizard-sound engineer hubby Mark Hawley and daughter Natashya) to record, tour, record, tour every two years, as she has consistently since her debut Little Earthquakes in 1991. It is not easy to bring this level of excellence to the table, for such a sustained period of time, nor is it easy to carve out a place in the macho, blustery world of modern rock music that allows very little breathing room for such a distinctive voice and vision, particularly a feminine one.
She plays this game while juggling projects such as her upcoming musical theater debut The Light Princess (which should debut in 2010 for the British Royal National Theater), a DVD featuring her 2007 tour in which she played five different characters including one named “Tori”, and a collaboration with David Byrne. There have also been whispers of, in the next five years, a tour with a full orchestra, which would be a first for Amos. Oh, and let’s not forget about the upcoming “solstice” music cd, rooted in both traditionalism and Paganism, featuring the return of Amos at the helm of a harpsichord, accompanied by “tubular bells”. It’s not going to be ‘She’s a Hussy, Merry Christmas’ she cracked backstage before her Radio City Music Hall gig, her eyes lighting up at the suggestion she was “re-Paganizing” the yuletide season. “Yes!” she laughed, insisting it would also be fine for “mom and dad”.
Despite such prestigious, fruitful projects, a recent reviewer of Amos’ show in Minneapolis unfairly complained that “I’ve always associated Tori Amos with her over-the-top fans, who in my mind will forever be slightly off-kilter women in their early twenties.” When one talks about the live show in a review, there is always an inevitable discussion of Tori’s fan base (not at all only women), which has both bolstered and marred her reputation on the live music circuit. Minneapolis’ local paper isn’t the first to point this out, in fact, a Tori fan can almost be as divisive as the singer herself is to many people (“I know I’m an acquired taste - I’m anchovies,” she once said. “And not everybody wants those hairy little things.”) I am in a tricky position, however, because I am both a writer and one of those fans that a more reasonable person might find to be “annoying” or “rabid”, yet I prefer to think of myself as a “connoisseur”. I have seen Tori in many incarnations: harpsichord playing demon-lover, arena rock goddess, as three of the four Dolls from the Posse, on Scarlet’s Walk with Jon Evans and Matt Chamberlain, and finally again, as just herself, stripped bare with only a piano to light the way. Some of my favorite live show experiences have come from this place, of being a mega-fan, of following the tour, of living this surreal experience with others who share my passion, so my perceptions are always colored by this.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about the live Tori Amos show is the fan culture – which is unlike any other artist’s outside of, perhaps, The Grateful Dead. The kind of tenacious following Amos has is so dedicated that people actually do go to see every show on every world tour. They camp out in cities to tell her their own stories. She holds the front row in every city to distribute to them. You would think the woman would be agoraphobic at this point, but the kind of focus and dedication she gives to her fan base is remarkable – she treats fans like they are the most important people in the world. Her hand is usually covered in black Sharpie-sketched requests (that she actually does play on many an occasion, if it isn’t “Datura”). I am not sure I have ever seen a musical artist, film director, actor or actress give their time so freely, or display such genuine empathy for the people who really do love seeing the live show. While Trent Reznor is on Twitter bitching out his fans, Tori is pounding the pavement, listening, laughing and enjoying hers at semi-informal meet and greets before nearly every show. She handles the press, the fans and the ephemeral hoopla with the grace of an old school movie star.
Ultimately, though, we have to look beyond the infamous cult following, beyond the heady ideas, beyond the new record (which I feel did not get a fair shake in the mainstream press or really even by fans), and examine what her live show is and if she is successfully pulling it off. What Tori has evolved into at this stage in her career is akin to the most outré performance artiste slinking through a Weimar-era Berlin cabaret at three in the morning drunk on absinthe; she is like the most soaring, temperamental of opera company divas wrapped too-tightly in a whalebone corset on opening night; the most Bohemian Jazz Age vaudevillian dripping in bugle beads – the woman knows how to pull out all the stops to put on a show night after night. Think Beverly Sills-meets-Sally Bowles-meets-Laurie Anderson for starters, with a dash of Iggy Pop added for seasoning. And somehow it works, particularly in the concert arena.
“But who wants to go see some old lady sing and play piano?” one of my (heterosexual) male friends once accidentally let loose from his classless mouth, much to my shock and dismay (do yourself a favor and don’t ever tell a Tori Amos fan that you don’t like Tori Amos). Well, my friend, because she is much more than simply that “girl and the piano” stereotype everybody seems to want to slap on her. Amos shreds it live. Say what you will about her politics, her style, or her image but there simply are not many living composers who can work on the piano in such a visceral, passionate way that is both crisp and classic one second, jaggedly modern the next. And she only gets better as she gets older. Her voice is stronger than ever, her point of view clearer, more seasoned. Gone are the nerdy flaws and fairy princess quirks that once endeared her to the sad Goth girls and little gay boys—those have been replaced by a stoic warrior woman in couture, empowered and telling stories from many points of view rather than just her own. It is a controversial metamorphosis for some who might argue that she made a career out of drawing from personal pain, but watching her hands work the instrument is simply more fascinating as the years go on and her piano arrangements for the live show remain as tight as ever. That’s not even taking into account the love given to the other four keyboards and organs she seamlessly works live, often simultaneously, often in some sort of complicated, glittering gown.
Amos hosted an intimate gathering in the dressing room of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall pre-show, which I was lucky enough to have been in attendance. Like she does with people who travel to see her shows, Amos took her time with each person in the room, listening intently, charming, and talking to each person as though she had known them for at least 15 years. It is no accident this woman is a rock star with the kind of charisma she exudes – when she entered the room, striking in a green silk mini-dress and second-skin black leggings, everyone went silent, stood and straightened up, as though they were in the presence of royalty. To get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the kind of rigorous schedule which a touring musician must adhere to made me see the show in another light altogether. It’s not just going out and playing. Its giving up one’s private time to personally see to the details, its being generous up until the very second she takes the stage. There are the fans to attend to, the family, the business contacts, the press, and the recording of new material on off days that are few and far between. At the center of it all is one strong, creative woman holding the whole thing together while wearing towering black patent leather heels. There are no wasted moments with Tori, and it is inspiring to watch.
Having seen so many shows, I always go in thinking that there is nothing she can do anymore to surprise me. But there are always curveballs in a “Tori Amos” show along with the staples. I have seen a lot of “Precious Things” and “Cornflake Girl”s in my day (other fans will attest to this – she plays these songs at almost every show, and has for years). This time, though, there was a devilish new energy infused into the traditional “Precious Things”, which enjoyed an ever-so-subtle make-over in key sections to distinguish it from the versions on previous tours. Under the Pink’s “Icicle” was given the full-band treatment with Jon Evans using a bow on a stand-up bass and percussionist Matt Chamberlain adding chimes, and it has never sounded more immediate and crushing. Then, in a raw, poignant moment, Amos broke out her solo piano cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which remains just as relevant today as it did when she first performed it more than fifteen years ago.
If I had any criticism of The Sinful Attraction Tour’s American leg, it would be a relatively miniscule one: I wish that more of the new record, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, other than the new standards, would have found their way into the set lists. “Give” is operatically moody when unfolding in a concert hall like a whiskey-coated harlot, and new bold dimensions were added to the already plush “Flavor”, which as a living breathing entity practically sizzles. It seemed a bit odd that the majority of songs played came from the back catalogue rather than from the new record. It’s a tricky juggling act, but Amos actually manages to give most people something they will love in every show, from To Venus and Back’s “Concertina” to The Beekeeper’s “Marys of the Sea” and “Jamaica Inn”, which was given a lovely, intricate little intro that transformed it from the album version. Whereas previous tours solidly showcased a larger number of newer songs, Tori has to pull from 10 albums now, and she covers as much ground as possible, and has often ignored her new release on this tour in favor of playing her trusty back catalog. I personally think this is yet another sign that she is concerned with being gracious to all of her fans and is intuitive to playing what her major audience comes out for in the first place and demands. As the song says, “I give love”.
Well, I will take that “love”, please, with a side of “Space Dog” and “Body and Soul” whenever Amos decides to bunny hop her way back to NYC. You know she’s not pulling a Jay-Z any time soon: she will be back flossing faster than you can say “Raspberry Swirl”. It’s the mark of greatness, that searing-close, Judy Garland-esque connection to the audience, and it is something that Tori will always have, at least if her show at Radio City was any indication. So, get off your BlackBerrys and I-phones kids, and watch the show instead of trying to record it. Also, please stop singing along. We get it, you know every word and the music is meaningful, but there’s a pretty lady onstage playing music and working hard. Give her your attention. She is forever your “M-I-L-F”, don’t you dare “for-get”.