[18 August 2014]
It has been a “Pretty Good Year” for both Tori Amos and her adoring fans. A critically acclaimed new album dropped earlier this spring and her recent tour has garnered accolades since it began. Amos’s performance tonight at New York City’s Beacon Theatre was simply spellbinding and quite possibly one of the best concerts in recent memory. One woman, one grand piano, an organ and a solitary synthesizer. Nothing more. Fully invested, emotionally nuanced, and displaying musicianship that still remains relatively peerless in the pop world, she plowed through a set list of obscure gems and classic favorites that felt like a personal gift to her fans.
My God, that voice. It sounds infinitely better than it did when she was younger. The timbre is purer, possesses a wider spectrum of timbral colors, and seems healthier than ever before. Glottal strokes used to dominate her phrases, but her lines are now more legato, more beautifully sung and yet, she’s learned how to distort and twist it into something that is also quite dark and ugly without ever injuring herself. Above all, she sounded vocally and artistically revitalized.
While there were occasional moments of languorous rubato to be heard on a few of the older songs such as “Icicle”, “Winter” and “Pretty Good Year”, its inclusion tonight somehow never detracted from the flow of the actual songs themselves. In past live concerts, that element led to performances that almost bordered on caricature, as if she were taking both her cryptic, poetic lyricism and her singer-songwriter persona way too seriously. Thankfully it didn’t come across as artistically masterbatory on this outing. Instead, all three of those songs were stunningly executed and lovingly rendered, as if she hadn’t sung them thousands of times before, yet was only now presenting them to the public.
Throughout the night, Amos looked radiant on the stage, covered head to toe in black with her trademark ginger hair cascading down her cheeks and ostentatious eyewear to boot. She looked refreshed, content and grateful to still be selling out such large venues after all these years. The enthusiastic audience at the Beacon was undeniably held within the palms of her hands from the moment she stepped upon the stage.
Tori is well known for her inventive interpretations of songs from other artists and tonight’s covers were no exception. Many an artist has sung Radiohead’s “Creep”, but few have been able to capture the emptiness of the original or bring something new to the equation. Amos injected her fragile performance with a tinge of the macabre and the narrator of the song was now not only awkward on the surface, but also menacingly antisocial underneath it all. It took the song into territory that was both frightening and immensely sad.
Kudos to the lighting designer this evening, whose rhythmic light show during her encore performance of “Precious Things” was exhilarating in its faux simplicity. The multihued beams took on a personality of their own. Lights occasionally shot out onto the audience members, enveloping them as if they were actual hands, giving an illusion that they were a physical entity reaching out into the crowd. Perfectly emulating the mood of her songs, they seemed but a natural extension of Amos’s performances.
It would be an egregious crime to not mention the sound engineer as well. I have seen many concerts at the Beacon, from Goldfrapp accompanied by a full orchestra to Dead Can Dance and even Fiona Apple. The less that can be said about that disastrous concert the better. When the headliner is literally beating herself on stage, mumbling to no one in particular, shouting obscenities at the stage manager and is seemingly under the influence of something one cannot get over the counter, it doesn’t make for a pleasant evening of music. The sound that evening was muddy and Apple was rarely heard above the mix. Tonight the piano was perfectly mic’d and Amos sounded as if she was singing in someone’s living room, not an ornate performance hall. No consonant was unheard, everything was crystalline clear and there was an additional warmth to her sound that only a seasoned engineer could have coaxed out of a soundboard, microphones and speakers.
Opening with “Parasol” from 2005’s The Beekeeper, Amos stripped the sunny, glossy studio sheen from the track with a darker piano arrangement that seemed truer to the lyrics within. Looking up at a framed painting of a woman with a parasol, Amos receives a call from what one presumes is her unfaithful partner. The news of his betrayal forever changes her. These tales are often like little emotional snapshots, song cycles, or mini operas and tonight she strung them together in a way that relied less on coherency and more on wild card variety. The set bounced from B-sides like “Take to the Sky”, a song that borrowed a bridge from To Venus and Back’s “Datura”. to favorites from Boys to Pele, her first two solo records, and a few offerings from Scarlet’s Walk. Particularly stunning was her performance of “Black-Dove (January)” taken from her 1998 album From The Choirgirl Hotel. The piano is naturally a percussive instrument by default, but the way Amos banged upon it for rhythmic and emotional gravitas throughout the set was electrifying.
Her latest album Unrepentant Geraldines has been lauded by many a critic as a return to form for Amos, and the new material presented this evening was as artistically relevant as anything in her past catalog. Oddly enough, she played only a few tracks from the record, but they left an indelible impression nonetheless. The poignant “Weatherman” was a highlight of the night’s setlist. The narrator of the song lost his wife, cannot come to terms with her death and cannot move on from the past, so nature helps him paint her back to life through the seasons. Somehow it all feels as relevant to the song, as to the artistic inspiration of the songwriter. Amos, after a few expertly crafted, yet occasionally meandering efforts, has come full circle and seems truly focussed and inspired on the past few albums. It’s very exciting. She doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. Her body of work and her impressive talent speak for themselves. There are few artists who are as committed to the material they are performing, even a decade or so later. There are also few musicians who seem as utterly joyous as Amos appeared to be on that grand stage tonight. Amos, like the Weatherman’s wife, has been painted back to life.
02. Space Dog
05. Black-Dove (January)
09. Smalltown Boy (Bronski Beat cover)
10. Creep (Radiohead cover)
11. A Sorta Fairytale
13. Take to the Sky (with a bridge from Datura)
14. Scarlet’s Walk
16. Cornflake Girl
17. Precious Things
18. 16 Shades of Blue
19. In Your Room (Depeche Mode cover)
20. Pretty Good Year