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Look up the setlists for Tori Amos’ shows immediately preceding and following her recent appearance in St. Paul and you’ll find few similarities, beyond the firm place “Cornflake Girl” holds at the end of her main set. You’ll also find little attention paid to Unrepentant Geraldines, the excellent new album she’s promoting. I wonder if an artist has ever played such a wide selection of her back catalog, containing so many words and lines of melody, on one tour. Compared to a set of new songs and old hits and a standard narrative of return, expected from a veteran artist on a national tour, such unpredictable variety made it difficult to track the angle of her attack. 22 years of Tori Amos unspooled, multitudinous and whole, tough news for anyone who needs their pop stars to follow a succession of crisp, unbreachable personas. She’s not so many people after all, just one in fact: exceptionally generous. That’s not to say she eschews reinvention, but it was astonishing, the way so many shades converged in one physically present artist, even as a healthy sense of mystery remained. And the show was, above all else, an astonishing feat of memory. 5,000 words later, maybe, as she drew the night to a close with “Pretty Good Year,” she finally forgot a line, paused, and breathed, “Fuck.”
I don’t know why part of me had expected a Las Vegas performance. Though she has a level of talent and audience engagement to easily supplant every singer from every casino auditorium (if not a fanbase willing to adapt to a canned environment), her set was so devoid of pandering, so absent everything but reflective, imaginative music, and her language so uncensored (which is not to say explicit, but with no filter on its textual/textural richness), that it became impossible to imagine the music supporting even the most mildly ostentatious production. Instead, the show yielded a bounty of text, slow to absorb but pleasing all the while, like a first reading of Shakespeare without annotation. She moved with ease between piano and keyboard (she needed only to swing her legs to the other side of her piano bench), sometimes to dramatize the plural narration of songs, as during “A Sorta Fairytale.” She spoke to the audience at length only twice, both times to offer perfunctory and totally unnecessary apologies for any mistakes made, as she began a section of audience requests, and later a pair of covers, during the “Lizard Lounge” portion of the show. The second of these covers, “Little Red Corvette,” was an expected but not boring choice (it made thematic sense to sing about a “pocket full of horses” during a set that had already contained the “dirty sheets” of “Crucify”), and was played with a distinctive ice-synth tone whose chintzy higher notes were supported and even justified by a swarming lower end. The other, Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” very much resembled the version found on 2001’s covers album Strange Little Girls but was maybe even faster and more insistent, and again made sense within the larger set, which teemed with men and boys (“Sugar,” “Pretty Good Year”).
For her own songs, she riffed on lyrics a little bit but generally kept to established meter. She broadened “Crucify” beyond self-flagellation (“never going back to crucify my fellow man … my land”) and anchored “Pretty Good Year” more firmly to the character of Lucy (“pretty she is … pretty she can be”), but made no major attempts to rewrite songs or shift their context. The latter song remained what it always was, a letter for posterity, vivid present tense trapped in the past, but “Crucify,” stripped to the same singer-at-her-keys arrangement as her entire set, sounded more than ever like a blueprint for everything she’s done since. But as if to limit its influence, she ended it abruptly, slamming the lid over her keys. Her visual legacy has perhaps conditioned listeners to associate the grand piano with the “real” Tori Amos, but her time spent facing the other direction on her bench, playing various keyboard sounds, meant no banal or distracting intrusion. 2005’s The Beekeeper got more attention than any other album from her catalog, and the moody organ of its title track and “Sweet the Sting” mesmerized in the absence of the recordings’ busy electronic elements. With no other performers joining her on the stage, the only accompaniment she had came with the prerecorded backing tracks for “Cornflake Girl” (sweeping, excellent) and “Raspberry Swirl.” This was the only disappointment of the night, as Amos attempted to enliven an inflexible and overly aggressive beat, and then fatally brought in bits of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.”
But such missteps hardly registered. More commanding of attention was an overall art of performance: the way she took no water or pause yet showed no sign of fatigue, the way she straddled her bench in a coiled sprinter’s pose, the way her high heel was poised at an angle of maximum potential energy. Her voice had all its familiar tones and some new ones: a fearless croak (during “A Sorta Fairytale” and “Honey”); a vast, benevolent whisper. The latter came at the end of “Winter,” and the combination of this particular song with the direct appeal of Amos’ soft, healing register caused me to have one of those delusional moments that everyone in the audience must have experienced at some point: This is all for me. “Winter” is my Tori Amos song, and if I’m not careful it can make me feel very isolated and lonely, for boring and powerful biographical reasons. But I’d rather share it. I couldn’t quite tell if the woman standing in front of me was crying, but I think she was, and in a way I wanted her to be, so I could finally shed a personal history that’s overstayed its usefulness, and put this song’s emotions in the safekeeping of someone else. “Things are gonna change so fast,” Amos sang, whispered, as if asking us to set aside whatever unsustainable things the song has meant, and the song itself, if we’re done with it.
A Sorta Fairytale
Forest of Glass
Real Men (Joe Jackson)
Little Red Corvette (Prince)
Sweet the Sting
Pretty Good Year