Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Acoustically Attracted To Sin: Tori @ The Savoy

Two weeks ago, in London, an event even rarer than Amy Winehouse making it to one of her gigs occurred: Tori Amos cancelled one of hers. The anti-Winehouse, part of Amos’s considerable reputation has been built on the mixture of edge-of-the-seat spontaneity and dedicated professionalism that she brings to live performance, and it’s this latter quality that has seen her notch up over 1000 live shows across her career, with less than a handful of cancels. So a called-off Tori gig has, due to its rarity, become an event in its own right. But the utterly enchanted evening that Amos offered us on Monday was more than adequate compensation for the disappointment of the missed show.

As dynamic and exciting as her full-band shows have been - and her 2007 American Doll Posse tour ranks as one of her finest ever accomplishments - there remains something particularly captivating about Amos solo, and, seated between Bosendorfer and keyboard, she’s never less than fully in control, offering her songs up in the purest form possible, allowing her lyrics to paint their own amazing images. Ostensibly, the gig was a showcase for new material from her wildly uneven but mostly sublime new album Abnormally Attracted To Sin, but in practice Amos ended up delving as deeply into her past as ever. The strong, surprising and typically thoughtful set-list encompassed material from almost all of her albums (only Under The Pink, To Venus And Back, Strange Little Girls and ADP were unrepresented), mixing classics, covers and obscurities. In Tori-terms, tonight the new girls met the old.

And what a meeting it was. In absolutely stunning voice and elegant dress, Amos was on searing form. Confoundingly, she chose to open the show with a cover, a performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” that was full of tension, warmth and chill, Amos spitting out the “woman is free” line with evident relish. It wasn’t too long before she made an apologetic reference to the missed show (“How crap was that?”) before segueing into a delicious improv about a security guard named Sade (complete with a snatch of “Smooth Operator,” natch).

The selections from AATS were superb and already sound like a fully integrated part of her repertoire. “Lady In Blue” may be the only new song to make a little less sense without the band interplay, but Amos offered a committed, consummate performance, moving expressively between keyboards on the “left the right man” lyric and augmenting the coda with some galvanising piano-bashing. (With her piano-playing somewhat muted on recent records, it was a pleasure to see Amos using the full range of extraordinary keyboard skills here.) A seething “Curtain Call” (its lyric content and alliterative title marking it out as the bitterer cousin of ADP’s “Secret Spell”) and a vamping, hilarious “Mary Jane” were also sublime, while a particularly caustic “Welcome To England” uncovered a new layer of wrath in Amos’s ambivalent ode to her adopted homeland, a country which, critically at least, has always tended to sorely undervalue her. “Maybe California” was warmly received, and Amos’s performance sincere and very touching, but I don’t think the song is as strong as she evidently thinks it is. Arriving a little later, a comparable ballad such as “Jackie’s Strength” - which mixes a whole range of cultural allusions and some delightful crude humour in with its tenderness - quickly exposes the new song’s limitations.

The appearance of Scarlet’s Walk gems “Taxi Ride” and “Wednesday” (yes!!) was gratifying, while Little Earthquakes standards “Crucify,” “Leather,” and “Silent All These Years” all sounded fresh and vital. “Cool On Your Island” was restrained and deeply moving, while a thrilling “Barons of Suburbia” (fast becoming a live fave) brought the show to a sensational, cathartic finish. At the encore Amos went for elegance, offering a fragile “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and a quietly resolved “Putting The Damage On.”

By Amos standards this was a short show (1hr 30 minutes) and doubtless she could have played for another hour and kept us enthralled. Observing the ease and grace with which she involves an audience, I thought back to one of the last gigs I saw, Antony and the Johnsons at the Barbican in November, a performance which, despite arresting moments, was so painfully art-conscious that it might have been taking place behind a glass case. Even at her most theatrical Amos favours no such arty distancing. She recognises the live arena as an inclusive, communal space, and she puts the audience on an emotional rollercoaster, moving them from calm to frenzy, laughter to tears, deep pain to solace, in an instant. No performer I know is better at shifting codes and moods and taking us with her every step of the way, and live performance remains her natural habitat, the place where she can truly make every gesture and nuance count. She has, in musical terms, what Trevor Nunn says Judi Dench has in acting terms: “the capacity to open herself and become a conduit for all our emotions and experiences and memories.” Intense, fun, harrowing and healing, tonight saw Amos at her best.