Tori! Tori! Tori!

>> Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tori Amos played at Ovens Auditorium tonight. It was at least the third time I've seen her play live: I caught her the last time she was at Ovens, on the tour for Scarlet's Walk and in Atlanta a year or two after that when she was on the road with Ben Folds.

I have to admit I wasn't exactly psyched for this one. I love Amos, have for years. But there was something about American Doll Posse, her latest album, that left me a little underwhelmed. It might be that Amos seems to have spent way too much time lately trying to get away from herself when herself is perfectly wonderful: ADP continues up on a conceit that worked poorly on her covers album, Strange Little Girls, in which she assumes several alter egos to perform the various songs. (There are hints of an alter ego on Scarlet's Walk, but the fact that the alter ego appears to be a traveling, musically-inclined redhead means that the "concept," such that it is lasts about as long as The Beatles' pretense that they're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on that album.)

Or it may have suffered in comparison: the same day I bought ADP I also bought another album infused with an American singer's disappointment in his country and rage at his leaders and their sanctimony, Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero. Both albums have songs targeted squarely at the current regime, but where "Yo George" sounds a bit too precious ("I salute to you Commander/and I sneeze/'Cause I have Now/an Allergy/To your policies it seems"), "Capital G" sneers in a way that possibly hasn't been heard since Johnny Rotten first took the piss out of Queen Elizabeth ("I pushed a button and elected him to office and a/he pushed a button and it dropped a bomb," Reznor hiccups). Listening to the two songs, it's hard not to remember that Amos has expatriated herself to Ireland for at least a decade now, while Reznor had (at one point) a residence and recording studio in New Orleans, the domestic poster child for the Bush administration's utter incompetence and callousness.

But the show!

The opening act was a guitar soloist from South Africa who goes by "Yoav" (his EP, on sale during the intermission, has an informative sticker on the front saying, "yo-ahv"). He played five songs, four originals and a somber but effective cover of The Pixies "Where Is My Mind." Yoav's big gimmick--and I'm utterly jealous at how well he makes it work for himself--is to use an echo box to create percussive loops that he plays over. Years ago, I saw the late, great Warren Zevon do a roof-blowing version of "Boom Boom Mancini" on the acoustic guitar using a similar technical trick, but Zevon had nothing on this Yoav character. For one thing, Yoav played his guitar as a percussion instrument more than he played it as a stringed instrument, a trick I've dabbled with but never gotten to sound half as good. The result is a sound that's (yes, you can punch me in the arm for saying this) synthetic and organic at once. The harshly rhythmic, percussive loops might sound at home on Black Celebration even though they're initiated on a classical acoustic, and then there's his real-time strumming and thwacking over it. I picked up the EP, and if it lives up to the live version, I'm looking forward to his full-length debut in January.

Tori came out to "Bouncing Off Clouds," from ADP, and went into a first set that I most enjoyed for it's inclusion of Lloyd Cole's "Rattlesnakes," by far the strongest track off Strange Little Girls. She's backed by three musicians on this tour, the usual suspects Matt Chamberlain and Jon Evans, joined by guitarist Dan Phelps. Based on the lightshow she's brought with her this time, the addition of a guitarist to her usual tour lineup is no doubt intended to "rock" more, or at least add a few bricks to what is presumably meant to be a wall of sound. Unfortunately--and this is through no fault of Phelps'--I'm not sure there's room for the guitar in Amos' sound: this is, after all, a woman who's referenced the fact that she plays piano like it's lead guitar in interviews and in song. I thought Amos' piano got a bit lost during the first set, and--again, no insult intended against Phelps--I didn't go to see Dan Phelps play guitar.

I also found myself worrying about a lack of warmth: Amos went straight through the songs of the first set without a pause; no banter, no flirting. Which was disheartening because Amos spent part of her childhood in North Carolina and has relatives in this area: on the Scarlet's Walk tour, she chatted about visiting cousins between songs and played like it was a triumphant homecoming. Which it was, of course.

It's a conceit of this tour that Amos goes backstage at the end of what I'm referring to as the "first set" and changes into one of the characters from ADP while the rest of the band keeps playing a raucous version of "Professional Widow" based on the remix included on Tales Of A Librarian while the lighting system went into seizure-induction mode. It was only fitting, seeing how she had family in the audience, that she came back out as "Tori," red-headed and in purple lamé. At least I think she was Tori. She didn't look like "Clyde," the next closest match. (This is an example of the problem with the whole alter-ego concept. The truth is, it didn't entirely work when David Bowie did it, either: musically speaking, Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke were still David Bowie, and as far as I know, when David Bowie goes on tour now, he doesn't run back stage and pop a red mullet wig on his head when he wants to sing "Rebel Rebel.")

This part of the show kicked it into high gear, with an appreciative crowd spending most of this set on their feet. There was, however, a bit of a hitch during "Big Wheel" when Amos appeared to get pissed at a fan in the front row: I believe the phrase was, "get the fuck off my stage." Whether this was part of the "Tori" character, a joke, teasing a local friend or family member, or Amos getting bitchy and nearly pulling a Roger Waters I can't say. If it was the latter, she quickly caught herself and flirted with the audience, telling the crowd that she knew North Carolinians would shake their asses and picking the song back up. I hope she was having a good time; the crowd certainly seemed to be.

She did slow it down and play a couple of songs solo, just her and the piano. Most notable was her cover of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat," a fan favorite that's shown up in her sets for years now. She also played part of the second set as a trio, with Phelps disappearing offstage for several songs; I hate to sound like I'm dissing Mr. Phelps, who was a decent guitarist, but this was possibly the most effective part of the show. It's really not his fault that he's backing a virtuoso pianist whose leads are one of the main things people came to see.

The first encore consisted of "Precious Things" and "Tear In Your Hand." The band barely left the stage before coming back out to play "Hey Jupiter." The band truly did come together as a quartet on this last number, with everything coming together for the finale.

It was a good show. Not the best Tori Amos show I've ever seen, but well worth the price of admission. I wouldn't mind, though, if the next time she hits the road she remembers that she's Tori Amos, asskicking pianist and vocalist, and that she doesn't need a huge lightshow, extra musicians, or a costume change to blow away a crowd. Hey, I'm a Pink Floyd fan--I can totally dig the lights and theatrics. But tonight the music ended up in the backseat when it really should have been driving. Still, don't get me wrong--I had a good time and I hope Amos did, too.


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