In piece one of a two-part series, PopMatters' Matt Mazur recounts a recent run-in with Tori Amos, analyzing her adventurous stage show and her many, many new personalities.
This is not going to be your typical review of a concert. My perception is absolutely (perhaps unfairly) skewed because I was given the golden ticket -- I won the Tori Amos lottery, so to speak. I interviewed the artist over the summer, and she happened to call while I was attempting to buy a ticket for myself online. Imagine the stress of ticket buying combined with the stress of anticipating a call from your hero, then stir in six cups of coffee, and you’ll get a good handle on how I was feeling that morning. In the interview, we covered a lot of ground -- including how she doesn’t get to watch enough good films, but plans to after the tour (number one on her list: Ingmar Bergman!). Tori was then kind enough to invite me to see her shows, thereby alleviating some of my queasiness. And when Tori herself offers you a ticket, there’s no saying no. There is a popular misconception that Tori Amos is feminine beyond reproach. But Amos is not just a piano-playing, cooing type of gal. If you want to experience true performance-art makeover -- a total re-invention of self-image -- look no further than the artist’s current live venture, The American Doll Posse Tour. You’ll find the diminutive enchantress at her most fevered, backed by a virtual electrical storm of rock-and-roll sound and a set filled with twinkling star lights that highlight the dramatic arcs present in her work. On this tour, she’s even been known to step out from behind her Bosendorfer and rock the mic like a proper rock goddess. Live performance has always been one of Amos’ strengths, and that’s saying a lot. Just watching her hands slide up and down the keys of her piano is spellbinding, a reminder that, occasionally, an artist can possess talent unfathomable to most mortals. Pay attention to her masterful navigation of “Cornflake Girl’s” timeless bridge, and you’ll see what I mean. When it comes to tickling the ivories, her aptitude verges on the pornographic. What Amos asks her audience this time out is to take a bit of a risk with her, to make a full commitment to the concept. Amos is essentially asking her core base to suspend their disbelief, get over their preconceptions about women in rock and about her music in particular. A tall order, yes, but for Amos, it’s the beginning of a new age. Tori has made it known that this will be her last full-tilt concert outing for a few years, and she is hell-bent on giving the people her all. What she’s doing with the entire ADP project is challenging the way popular culture perceives women over the age of 40. She is re-defining what it means to be a relevant female artist “of a certain age. For Amos, it involves a maelstrom of guitars and a little bit of rubber. And yet, musical theater has never looked so slinky. The four characters of the Posse album and tour -- all played by Amos -- appear nightly alongside the character of “Tori”. Of the three shows I attended, I had the opportunity to catch the patriotic Isabel, the sylph-like Clyde, and, the most aggressive of the Posse, the rock star Pip. Stepping onstage as a character can be the end of people taking you seriously (Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines, anyone?), but Amos doesn’t go egotistically over the top with any of her multiple personalities. She’s not outrageously gauche like Liberace, or even Elton John. The performance of multiple personas isn’t an exercise in sparkly frivolity, nor is it (entirely) about Amos’ dedication to looking good in designer duds. As is the case with any Amos project, this one developed over a great deal of time, and the result is an alternate reality in which the heart is an organ of fire. It’s fascinating to see Tori being pushed out of her comfort zone, and she obviously loves every second of it -- from smoking what looked like a giant joint as Isabel to screaming obscenities as Pip. This is a challenging experiment for an established artist who expects not only her fan base to come along for the ride, but also for her experiments to work in a new record-buying climate. Some might call it a gimmick, but it feels more like research. In fact, Amos is currently prepping a musical, and I have to wonder if she’s using this tour to pave the way for an appearance as an actress. So, first, let’s look at the character’s sets that I was privileged enough to catch: Isabel
I honestly didn’t really see much of a difference between Tori’s movements and Isabel’s. Are these merely cosmetic differences? She was a tad more reserved and a little stiffer -- but the subtleties are lost on me. Of course, keep in mind, that as a film reviewer, I may be more trained to be critical of the concepts of “performance” and acting than the average music fan. Tori is currently prepping a musical and the main thing I am wondering about that is if she is using this tour as an acting workshop to perhaps appear in the production as an actress? This is not to say she didn’t sound great (“Yo, George” was invigorated by the full band treatment), but there was a surprising lack of showmanship in the character’s recital. It is really interesting to see Tori being experimental on this level, though, and being pushed out of her comfort zone, and she is obviously loving every second of it, from the sashay of Isabel smoking what looked like a giant joint to Pip screaming obscenities. This is a challenging experiment for an established artist who expects her fan base to come along for the ride, with the record buying market changing so quickly. Some might call it a gimmick, but it feels more like research. Isabel, of course, does “Tori Amos” covers (as does the rest of the Posse). The old war horse “Sweet Dreams” bubbled along after the opener, while “In the Springtime of His Voodoo” sprang to wild life with a guitarist, drummer, and bassist -- a treatment that hadn’t been afforded to the song since its inception. But I had trouble understanding why Isabel, the most politically strident of the posse, then started playing “Tubular Bells”, the theme song to The Exorcist. Where did this fit in with the character’s “political” motif? Did it simply serve as a clunky intro to the sparsely-arranged “Devils and Gods”, or was it there to show that Isabel (and Tori) can play as well as she can sing? With all of these mildly confusing “covers” leading into the main set, the big question for me became where was the other big Isabel song? “Dark Side of the Sun” is a strong album track that was being unfairly ignored. Pip
It was shocking to hear the operatic high notes that end Tori’s ’98 song “Cruel” re-interpreted by this wholly unrecognizable, fierce slip of a girl in black rubber tights and blue silk, topped by a brunette shag. Tori as Pip was a definite immersion into character, one that she let loose with thunderous abandon -- there was no sight of “Tori” at all during this portion of the show. Pip’s dangerous canon included the raucous “Teenage Hustling” and “Fat Slut”, as well as the delicate madness of “Smokey Joe”. Before leaving the stage, Pip crawled around on the floor, had a few f-word laced freak-outs, flipped the audience the bird, and gave a shot of her shiny backside.
Tori Amos as Pip
The sensitive gal of the bunch, Clyde sashayed out with a bizarre, almost kabuki-inflected sense of movement; her body language seemed to signal a life lived in secret. Graceful, elusive, and shy, Clyde hid her face behind a scarf for the first few minutes of her entrance, invoking a sense of mystery and delicacy. The songs during this set reflected Clyde’s American Doll Posse poetry: “Bouncing Off Clouds” was a rollicking opener that simmered and jammed for a solid three minutes while Clyde initiated the audience into her cult. The crowd was given a rare treat with the live debut of “Girl Disappearing”, a spare ballad that got the full-band treatment on stage. Matt Chamberlain’s drumming was subtle, while bassist Jon Evan used a bow on his upright to express the beautiful melancholy of the album version’s string quartet. It’s this sort of re-envisioning of album tracks that Tori’s fans all but live for, and this was a very exciting first appearance. “Beauty of Speed” remains one of the album’s best tracks and, despite its complicated musical structure, was pulled off flawlessly. Clyde’s Amos covers included a soaring version of the singer’s confessional “Little Earthquakes”, and a relatively sedate performance of To Venus and Back’s “Juarez”. Each of the Amos covers in Clyde’s set reflected some sort of elegiac take on violence against women, be it emotional, physical, or otherwise. It perhaps isn’t much of a stretch, then, for Tori to pull Clyde off so well: she’s been the interpreter for this character for many years. Check back Monday for part two of Matt Mazur’s Tori Amos character analysis and live review, featuring more characters and another slew of sets.