What a pleasure and privilege it remains to see Tori Amos perform live. The second London night on her tour in support of her new album Night of Hunters [review here] saw the great piano lady decamp from the Royal Albert Hall to the Hammersmith Apollo. The RAH show was by all accounts a great one, but it must be said that the set-list yielded few big surprises, especially for a tour that’s already been noted for its unexpected dips into the depths of the Amos back catalogue. Last night’s show, by contrast, found Amos pulling out several unanticipated songs, placing B-Sides and rarities alongside dyed-in-the-wool classics and the new material, to deliver a typically thrilling evening of musical exorcisms and epiphanies.
Over her many years of live performance, Amos has always found ways to keep her material fresh and vibrant. But the presence on this tour of the esteemed Apollon Musagéte Quartett (aka the Fab Four, aka the Polish Strings Posse), whose contributions are so central to Night of Hunters, has made these shows particularly special. With her Bösendorfer and Yamaha synth accompanied by the energetic, expert playing of Pawel Zalejski and Bartosz Zachold on violins, Piotr Szumiel on viola and Piotr Skweres on cello, Amos is currently out there working in a generation-spanning genre: let’s call it “chamber rock.” Tight as a drum but with space for spontaneity, the show proved, as always with Amos, an emotional rollercoaster, testifying yet again to her phenomenal energy and expressive range as an artist.
The concert began, as per, with an intense, dramatic rendition of Night of Hunters’s sublime opening salvo, “Shattering Sea,” preceded by an extended instrumental opening. The other selections from the new album (just four in total) were also strong, with only “Fearlessness” perhaps not quite matching the recorded version for impact. The NoH highlight for me, though, was an intoxicating performance of that brilliant ten-minute opus “Star Whisperer,” which galvanised from its first marvellously portentous Schubertian chords through the thrilling abandon of the mid-section to the gasp with which Amos finally released the tension at the end. (All that remains now is for Amos and the Quartett to get the album’s other epic, “Battle of Trees,” together in time for the Yanks.)
The new arrangements for the older material were all intriguing, and often startlingly effective. The layered electro-rock songs from from the choirgirl hotel (1998) and To Venus and Back (1999) are daring, ambitious choices for this particular set-up, but the performances were wonderfully accomplished, with the Quartett ably standing in for the drums, synths, bass and guitars of the original renditions, and generally making cello, violin and viola sound like the baddest-ass instruments on the block. A taut yet languid “Suede” and a quicksilver “Spark” were superb, while “Cruel” - already established as perhaps the song of this tour - has become a quite extraordinary thing: a steely incantation, defiant and confessional, with a pivotal line from “Yes, Anastasia” beautifully incorporated into its folds. A furious, cathartic “Precious Things” generated perhaps the strongest response of the night, and I was also especially pleased to hear Abnormally Attracted to Sin’s “Maybe California” and, for the first time live, American Doll Posse’s “Girl Disappearing” (the song to which this blog owes its title).
In the solo spots, Amos unleashed some of her most surprising song choices, including “Ruby Through the Looking Glass” and “Never Seen Blue” (immaculate, both) while the great early B-Side “Ode to the Banana King (Part 1)” made a rare and very welcome apperance. Taken solo on the synth, AATS’s “That Guy” picked up a new level of menace and tension; a cover of “Landslide” arrived like an old friend; and a requested “A Sorta Fairytale” came out equal parts sad and sharp. The encore, preceded by the Quartett's wonderfully vigorous newly-composed piece “A Multitude of Shades,” offered a moving “Carry,” a graceful “Baker Baker,” an urgent “Siren,” and, as concert closer, “Big Wheel”, in its new, rather fetching incarnation as an all-acoustic clapalong hoe-down. A multitude of shades, indeed.
Aside from the wonder of her vocals - still capable of shifting from icy chill to embracing warmth in a moment - and her keyboard skills, there were of course all those priceless little moments that make an Amos performance an Amos performance, whether it’s her half-rising from the piano stool when she hit the “I was talking to you” line in “Fairytale,” or pointing out into the audience as she sang “Devious we all have been” on “Banana King,” a gesture bespeaking acceptance rather than accusation.
I’ve quoted this before in relation to Amos’s live performances but each time I see her it seems more apt: that 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.” Clearly energised and challenged by her work with her new collaborators, Amos continues to go as deep as any singer-songwriter has ever gone, it seems to me, carving through her superb song-craft and interpretive skills vivid sketches of our internal dilemmas, the pain of conflict, the consequences of giving up your power, the possibility of its retrieval. “The night is opening,” she sang. And so were we.
Ode to the Banana King (Part 1) (solo)
A Sorta Fairytale (solo)
Ruby Through The Looking-Glass (solo)
Never Seen Blue (solo)
Cloud On My Tongue
That Guy (solo)
Way Down (solo)
A Multitude of Shades
Full tour details here.