Tori Amos Delivers Rousing Performance In Cleveland

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Photo by Christopher Treacy

While reviewing Laura Nyro’s 1977 release Season of Lights, recorded during her concert tour the year prior, Village Voice contributor Ariel Swartley wrote that the album merely confirmed, “… the terms of Laura Nyro’s comeback: She won’t set herself on fire for us anymore.”  Such is the nagging worry for fans of any performer whose art is fueled by unbridled emotional intensity…Can they bring it year after year? Will it always ring true?

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Twenty-two years since the release of her stirring debut and Tori Amos still serves up a rousing live performance built from the blood and guts her fans have come to expect. The set list changes nightly and tends not to cater to casual listeners. This keeps the Cult of Tori somewhat insular, but also very much alive and well, especially during a world tour like the one she began earlier this year. At Cleveland’s Cain Park on August 7, she treated a crowd of longtime devotees to a set of eclectic choices pulled from nearly all corners of her catalogue that still miraculously managed to serve up a little something for everyone.

Parked between her Bosendorfer piano and a Wurlitzer, Amos delivered punchy versions of “Parasol” and “Pancake,” from 2005’s The Beekeeper and 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, respectively, before reaching a little further back. The electric keyboard added pleasing orchestral flourishes to “Concertina” and mimicked a harpsichord during “Spark,” both one-time singles from the late ’90s. Amos made an impressive show of playing both instruments simultaneously and switching between them during the same song, often defiantly slapping the fallboard of her piano for punctuation. A soaring vocal delivery rendered “Northern Lad” as particularly satisfying with the unforgettable line, “Girls you’ve got to know / when it’s time to turn the page / when you’re only wet because of the rain.”

Though her audience seems clearly divided about whether she’s better suited to perform solo or with a band, Amos’s Cleveland gig went far to suggest the former. Alone, she’s able to alter the pace as she pleases, allowing additional time for her voice to warm up. Moving through a song, she can add time by stretching or repeating passages, waiting until she’s ready to successfully reach for high notes or sustain demanding longer ones. Conversely, some of her vocal nuances get lost in full-band arrangements, particularly when she’s traveling in a bottom-heavy trio with just drums and bass, as she has on multiple occasions. While that arrangement may allow for more easy masking of bum notes, it also keeps her sticking to the safety of her lower register. Solo, Amos is more likely to push herself to greater heights.

Overall, her voice has held up well through years of heavy touring, as she proved with velvety-smooth renditions of “Cooling” and “Mother.” She indulged her hiss-and-growl, f-bomb-dropping persona during a fevered cover of the Nine Inch Nails rant “Something I Can Never Have,” garnering rowdy cheers from the crowd, while her second cover choice – Chas & Dave’s “London Girls” – was positively cheeky in contrast. Her own “Little Amsterdam” followed, reveling in an eerie stew of Southern Gothic oddities.

Trading the Wurlitzer for a Hammond B3 organ for the show’s latter third cast a sermonic tone, particularly appropriate for the moving Beekeeper title track, which finds Amos pleading with death to spare a rapidly fading loved one. “In the Springtime of his Voodoo,” meanwhile, got a playful, bluesy makeover that accentuated it’s humorous references to the Eagles, “Thelma & Louise” and “Star Trek.”

Amos pulled very few choices from her latest, Unrepentant Geraldines, playing the latter half of the title track (a.k.a. “The Vicar’s Wife”) with music-box delicacy early on. During the four-song encore, which ended with a scorching run through the wallflower anthem “Precious Things,” she played the recent single, “Trouble’s Lament,” over an unnecessary instrumental track. As she proved when performing the tune solo numerous times on television this past spring, it stands up just fine on its own.

Despite this singular misstep, Tori Amos is still a thrilling performer twenty-plus years on. If her most recent studio recordings have left you feeling cold, her live show still brims with the bewitching combo of ballsy confrontation and come-hither softness that caused a stir at the launch of her career. Add in her undeniable musicianship as a prodigious pianist with expressive pipes and she’s still very much a triple threat. Jaded one-time fans might argue they can’t suspend disbelief to enjoy Amos’s live shtick this many years on, glamour gowns and all… but there’s one major flaw in that logic: you needn’t suspend disbelief for something so undeniably real.

 

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