Los Angeles is teeming with both energy and sneers at the bizarrely over-the-top traffic accommodations and “security measures” granted our 44th President as he jaunts about town on unofficial business. Thankfully, the swelter and snarl give way to the serenity and relative cool of Griffith Park as 5,000 fans venture to The Greek Theatre for a performance by Tori Amos.
Tori, as devoted fans refer to her with an assumed familiarity, is in her erstwhile hometown to support the release of Unrepentant Geraldines, a document that divergently references The Beatles and Bach (and many others) while combining her deeply personal subject matter with whimsy and the fantastical.
Nine rectangular brick panels are suspended behind her; she’s situated neatly between her Bösendorfer piano and Korg synth, creating something resembling the coziness of a club even as the stars and foliage surrounding the venue provide an entirely different sense of scale. The contrast mirrors that of her music and lyrics; her darkest secrets are spilled alongside delicate and ethereal compositions, girly innocence giving way to a psychologically complex embrace of life’s lemons and the immediate procession to commerce: she sells her lemonade with alacrity.
Her popular influence may have waned a bit over the past twenty years, (her latest has still charted impressively), but the majority of her audience tonight first absorbed her teachings in their formative years and remain avid pupils. (Personally, her earlier work soundtracked many of my morning rides to school, Under the Pink was one of five CDs I took to France as an exchange student, and in general her lyrics introduced me to gender-based perspectives). All these years later, our paths cross again as teacher and students, long-time followers understanding the simple calculus: her prodigious career’s output plus time constraints will equal unrequited love for most of her extensive catalog.
She enters to thunderous applause and offers up The Beekeeper’s “Parasol.” Its gradual progression leads to thunderous and aggressive piano strokes, her voice as strong as it’s ever been, piercing the cooling night air with its unmistakable timbre. With barely a beat, she moves to “Bouncing Off Clouds,” playing both piano and synth, mounted upon her the straining stool as her legs form a triangle, leaning slightly towards the synth and her right hand. Her posture is as impossibly sexual and dynamic as her low cut black top and leather-looking pants. She may be in the midst of menopause (her words) but she still owns her sexuality on stage, just as she lyrically owns all of her other challenges. And this is the essence of Tori Amos’ art: she turns pain and disability into strength and joy. Often, her songs’ time signatures change to signify a shift between an unpleasant instance, her recovery, and her strong-willed decision to turn the experience into fuel.
She addresses the crowd, singling out the Queens who didn’t glam up as they may have the night earlier for Lady Gaga at Staples Center. Hoots and hollers take on a life of their own before she again seizes control with lyrics that instantly bring chills: Every finger in the room / is pointing at me. The crowd goes silent, her power surges as she brings it down to a whisper, cooing out lyrics like the last breaths of a prematurely dying woman. I’ve been looking for a savior in these dirty streets / been looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets. The echo on her mic occasionally morphs into something resembling a Doppler Effect and her emotion seems as freshly plucked from her heartstrings as it did twenty years ago (on a song she must be tired of singing). That, in itself, is a rare accomplishment.
And this causes a moment of reflection upon where she came from and the influence she’s had. Few remember her initial iteration as Y Kant Tori Read, a not so subtle allusion to her disillusion with the Peabody Conservatory (and its with her) and her refusal/inability to read sheet music. The project was a bomb, and bore little to no resemblance to the genius contained in her now iconic career as a solo artist. (Despite her efforts to bury its memory, she later conjures up “Fire on the Side”).
But, this was pre-Internet (for all intents and purposes) and “the right to be forgotten” was not yet a notion courts had considered. Which brings up the curious case of Lizzy Grant — now better known as Lana Del Rey. There’s an undeniable vocal styling that has been passed down from Amos to Del Rey, and one must wonder if her career reinvention also took inspiration from the same source, even if the reinvention itself bears little resemblance.
The segue from “Crucify” into “God” is appropriately smooth; she employs the synth AND the piano simultaneously, reaching back without a glance to play a complex one-handed part with aplomb. She talks about LA – about having lived here – and then significant applause greets the opening chords of the brilliant “A Sort of Fairytale.” The track shifts time and space, name-checking local landmarks along the journey. The trip takes on metaphorical and literal peaks and valleys as her voice traverses the scale and the decibel meter; what was the barely audible whisper of a recoiled girl turns into the dominant direction of the leather-clad mistress.
The season changes, and we brace for the solitary chill of “Winter.” She turns the stage into something temporarily re-branded as the “Lizard Lounge” and runs through a series of covers that include Bjork, Elton John, and a memorable version of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).”
A few songs later, she finds a way to vocalize the range of human emotion in one song, that song being the temperamental classic, “Little Earthquakes.” And I hate and I hate …. Give me life / Give me pain / Give me myself again. She takes significant liberties with its recorded form, dancing to the beat of her own metronome. This is something she does again and again, and as much as it sometimes renders songs into a totally different form, she’s earned her indulgences. In this sparse version her ability shines most brilliantly; she sings in what sounds like three octaves, punctuating her words with a middle eastern tonality and wailing the song to a close.
When she trots out “Cornflake Girl” to end the set, she recognizes its needs: prerecorded backing percussion, vocals, and instrumentation are all added to the mix. It’s a fully-fleshed out moment, one meant to bring the audience to their feet, one that succeeds in its aims.
The encore brings a quartet of songs, the third being a cover of Depeche Mode’s “In Your Room” and the closer being a somewhat fitting farewell to The Greek Theatre, (a Roman one wasn’t available), “Hey Jupiter.” The audience knows this is the end, and a strange combination of screams and placid piano meet in the air. Her strokes are incredibly soft as she engages the sublime, focusing purely upon beauty and technique, no longer self-indulgent and embracing the original composition. Her plaintive piano strokes quiet a crowd now forced to focus upon an artist of singular appeal, a genre unto herself and truly without peer. She commands rapt attention and elicits a few tears: No one’s picking up the phone / Guess it’s me and me. If she did an entire show in this vein, the city might run out of tissues.
She leaves us with a moment that sums up her abilities as an artist, a vocalist, a musician, and as a human being. It’s a moment of unvarnished honesty, quirk, and ether. And yet, we’re grounded in the here and now, 18 years after the song’s release. She has embraced an understanding of the good angel and the bad, showing the ability to gently soar with one and, suddenly, dive furiously with the other. It’s a moment in her heavens, and yet still relatable to those of us figuring out how to use our wings.