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Concert Review: Tori Amos

By Fred Choi

Tsongas Arena, Lowell

November 17

All day I kept asking myself, "Is it worth paying 30 bucks to miss class, catch the commuter rail, ride for an hour and a half to Lowell, stand outside of an arena for two more hours in the freezing cold November drizzle, and then have to stand for another two hours listening to music I adore?" I kept asking myself this even as I listened to the pretty good opening act, The Unbelievable Truth, as I waited for the crew to set up, as I was pressed even more uncomfortably to people standing all around me, and even as the curtains went up and the drummer started pounding.

But I cheered with the rest of the crowd when Tori Amos walked onstage as part of her 1998 "Plugged" tour. She acknowledged the vital artist/audience interaction she has spoken of often in her interviews by walking in front of her beloved Bosendorfer, bending her head, and kneeling with her arms outstretched towards the audience, as if collecting the almost palpable energy of the crowd in her hands. Even after she had performed this customary ritual, and had gracefully turned and seated herself in her notorious straddle position at her piano, I still had faint whispers of doubt. But less than thirty seconds later, after she had launched into what has become her standard opener for this tour, "Precious Things," I knew that, given the opportunity, I'd go through it all again in a heartbeat.

Myra Ellen Amos, the daughter of a North Carolinan minister, was a child prodigy who began playing the piano at the age of two, was accepted into the prestigious Peabody Conservatory at age five, and was kicked out at age 11 for wanting to play The Beatles with Beethoven. She earned her first real success in 1992 with her album Little Earthquakes, despite little radio play (although "Silent All These Years" was played on radios last summer, five years after the album came out). She completed her fourth and most recent tour yesterday, which brings us back to the Lowell show.

"Precious Things" is a song that perfectly sets the mood for the evening. The song, like many of the others among the 18 she played, has a whole new sound with the band, which she's playing with for the first time. Instead of the visceral and riveting experience of seeing a lone woman on stage with a piano and a microphone, baring her soul in song after emotionally-packed song to a crowd hanging onto her every word, we get the new experience of getting to see Tori rock in a way very few other female artists can even come close to (although you miss more than a few of the words).

And let me tell you, they rock hard. With guitarist Steve Caton, who has played on all of her albums including the '80s disaster YKant Tori Read, drummer Matt Chamberlain, who has played with Pearl Jam and the Wallflowers, and relative newcomer Jon Evans on bass (electric and string), Tori alternates between piano and keyboard and performs like you've never seen her before. The crowd was a mass of wildly dancing bodies, rough considering we could barely move on the floor in the first place.

Some of the best performances of the night were familiar tracks off of her previous three albums, such as "Past The Mission" from Under the Pink, and "Tear In Your Hand" from Tori's first solo album Little Earthquakes. The big surprise, and one of the highlights of the night, was the performance of "Girl," rarely performed on her first two tours and which hasn't been performed in its entirety since 1994.

Along with these great performances were the wonderfully reworked older songs, most notably "Space Dog," "Putting the Damage On," and the completely restructured "The Waitress," with its eight minutes of intense energy that always floors the crowd. Rounding out the bulk of the rest of the setlist was material from her latest album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, slightly improved. The somewhat quirky "Hotel" sounded more coherent; the quasi-homoerotic "Raspberry Swirl" featured a new, manic beat, coupled with an extended coda that blew the top off of the arena; and the tribal-chant-esque "iieee" included a fantastic new bridge that was later identified as being part of "Band on the Run," by Wings (which included Beatles veteran Paul McCartney).

Halfway through the regular set came "secret time," the two solo piano songs that fans familiar with this tour's format look forward to at every show. That night we were not disappointed when Tori played the popular b-side/semi-ballad "Here. In My Head," and the cathartic "Twinkle," the final track on her Boys for Pele album. The song, epilogue to an album divided into four definite sections and a prologue, was still heartbreakingly beautiful in its simple arrangement and unique harmonies, even if it was performed out of context. These two solo songs, along with the final encore (the lesser-known solo b-side called "Black Swan") left many wishing for more solos. Some wanted to see more personal interaction between Tori and the audience, rather than the more aloof rockin' versions with the band. Tori recognized this problem early on in the tour and commented with her usual idiosyncratic language: "We might be trading a bit of intimacy for a bit of butt. Butt, you know, low-end bottom. There is a kind of rhythm thing going on that you can only get from a rhythm section. You can't trade, for instance, snow and rain. They're different elements. They just are."

As a pianist, I especially missed Tori's incredible improvisation. Although it is true that she now improvises within the confines of extended repeated sections (which she terminates with a hand signal to the rest of the band), she no longer spontaneously improvises new songs, or extends sections of songs as she did. So it was a special moment when someone shouted out a request for the popular, and somewhat silly, but rarely heard, b-side, "Toodles Mr. Jim," and Tori responded with a moving improvisation loosely based on it to introduce the final song of the night.

After, the crowd clamored for more, and Tori grinned her widest grin, giving the three other musicians a big group hug. The show was over all too soon, and we have a whole year to wait until her live album comes out (December 1999 is the projected release date). Even though the acoustics weren't ideal, I'm sure that if the fans in the audience were asked if all the hassle of getting there and back was worth it we would all agree that, to paraphrase the lyric from "Cornflake Girl," "You bet your life it was!"