By Mike Finkelstein
Last week at the Greek Theatre, Tori Amos reminisced to an adoring crowd that several of the songs she would perform were born just down the street around Franklin and Gower. If the songs are her babies then her audience plays a role in raising them. Many of the tunes she played Wednesday were around 20 years old and were fondly received like old friends. It seemed quite apparent that many of these folks had seen her multiple times over the years and the vibe when she hit the stage was one of reconnecting with a good friend.
It usually takes a whole band to play a venue the size of the Greek Theater and have an impact. In lieu of a band, one had better have strong material, and most importantly, a whole bundle of charisma to get the point across. Tori Amos came to play with plenty of both.
A petite and adorably animated woman, she skipped on stage Wednesday dressed in black and wearing a stylish set of glasses, which she rarely removed. She also brought a manila folder full of notes, lyrics, and setlists that were certainly going to require those glasses stay right there.
Her stage setup is basically that of a piano bar. There was a grand piano and an electronic Hammond organ arranged back to back so that she could play them in tandem for much of the night. Once she had bounded on, she would pivot on the bench and strike up the tunes in elegant two legs forward and to the side postures. Behind the pianos were six tastefully arranged sections of faux bricks to evoke that piano bar ambience. Around halfway through the set, one of the sections grew a neon sign and we were in the Lizard Lounge where one would expect to hear piano covers. She did three good ones, Bjork’s “Hyperballad,” an intriguingly controlled version of Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Around (like a record),” and a chugging version of Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
T. A.’s piano style uses arpeggios to spin and push the vocal line along. From measure to measure we could hear the tensions between the piano and her voice bubbling away. She also is deft with dynamics and within each tune her sound was consistently morphing.
Amos’ vocal range is dynamic. Within one stanza she would easily transition from a bluesy growl to a soaring Celtic wail. This approach to phrasing made a song like “Fire on the Side” into an enormous entity. It’s a song about almost winning the love of a married man and the heartache that comes with this sort of thing. I happened to be standing next to a woman who was singing along with T.A. What struck me was how perfectly she sang along with it through every emotion in the song, likely because she had been there before and had it to help her through the ordeal. And I started to notice how many other people were connecting with all of the songs in the same fashion.
As I listened to Amos sing “Crucify,” I found myself musing on how the best songs often take an unhappy subject like being hypercritical of our selves and turn it into several minutes of haunting beauty. Beauty and sadness together do draw us in.
During “Wedding Day,” Amos relied on a bit of gadgetry to make the song come alive. Her electronic keyboard had a patch that made the keys sound like a guitar. The intervals played through this patch are what will really make it sound like someone is playing a guitar. Of course, she did voice it like a guitar and the effect brought out a double take or two. Then she used a layered harmonic effect to get the harmonies on the original recording, and also added a percussion patch. But to her credit, she delved into these enhancements very sparingly.
The bond between Tori Amos and her audience is clearly rock solid. Wednesday’s show at the Greek felt like a homecoming of sorts for yet another musician who paid dues just a few miles away in Hollywood and has returned for a simple stop on the tour itinerary. The adoration coming from the audience was remarkable, as was the respect she gave back to them in song.
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