Opening a gig with a Leonard Cohen cover isn’t usually a good way to get the crowd going, and in the hands of many artists it would seem willfully perverse.
Not so for Tori Amos. As her albums become musically more complex and lavishly produced, her piano-only live act has become increasingly about rediscovering the primal energy of her own material. And this spirit lends itself just as well to Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, as she brings to the surface all the poetry and drama and lurking quietly within the original.
Decked in a star-spangled off-the-shoulder number, she rattles through a set which showcases plenty of new material – five highlights from her new album Abnormally Attracted To Sin – but also yields a generous number of crowd-pleasing favourites from her back catalogue. Under The Pink and Boys For Pele are surprising under-represented (nothing from the former; only one lesser-known song from the latter) but her debut Little Earthquakes is liberally plundered, much to the delight of older fans.
Silent All These Years and Leather are played fairly straight, and are as mesmerizing as they ever were on record. Crucify, though, is drawn out into a mini-symphony of several movements, seemingly improvised at times, with Tori writhing shamanistically before flinging her arms wide at the crescendo of the song. Powerful stuff.
Aside from new single Welcome To England, there were relatively few cheers of recognition at the new material, suggesting that Tori Amos fans don’t really do illegal downloads. But by the end of each of the new songs, a rapturous reception made it clear that this material is as strong as anything she’s ever done. Stripped of the electronic moodiness of the album, Lady In Blue and Curtain Call are given a raw, direct power; almost otherworldly at times, as her voice swoops around the words like a violin passage.
The new album centres around characters and narratives, which sometimes risk being buried under dense production and obliquely worded lyrics. But delivered live with only a piano accompaniment, they become more immediately recognisable as stories; and highly moving ones at that. Maybe California – a slow-burn tear-jerker on record – is given its full emotional impact, with the old Tori trick of delaying each note for a fraction of a second for maximum dramatic value. Even Mary Jane, a potentially mawkish tale of a mother’s tolerance of her teenage son’s drug use, is compelling, witty and fluid here.
Only Welcome to England suffers from the absence of instrumentation. Tori does her best to recreate its luxuriant sound by dividing her attentions between Bosendorfer piano and electric organ – sometimes playing them both at once – but the jarring counterpoint fails to replace the prettiness of the original with anything as pleasing. And a breathy, campy cover of Over The Rainbow also seems a little ill-advised, as if beamed in directly from a Barbara Streisand concert.
As ever, there’s much more to a Tori Amos gig than merely voice and piano. She constantly takes chances with old and new material, and is always as focused on communicating as on playing. As a solo act, the spotlight is never off her; and she returns the compliment by facing out to the audience and moving as if unconstrained by such an unwieldy instrument, as if handling the keyboard was the easiest part of performing. Exciting indeed to experience this in such an intimate venue.