Tori Amos - Manchester Apollo & Birmingham Symphony Hall
The first thing that never fails to strike me in the pre-show, lobby-loitering hour before a Tori Amos show is the diversity of the crowd. Sure, there is the regular crowd of hippies, homos and housewives but they'll be stood at the merch stand next to a couple of suits and a red-headed tweenie who's accompanying mommy. It communicates to me that, as Amos's back catalogue grows, so does her devout fanbase despite a failure to hit chart paydirt since Professional Widow's flirtation with '90s dance diva-dom. There can't be a harder working woman (heck, artist in general) on the live circuit, with Amos spending half of every other year playing to sold-out venues from Sydney to Israel. Lucky me then that I bagged tickets to both the Manchester and Birmingham dates of the UK leg of her Sinful Attraction tour. Who needs church when I can enjoy a quasi-religious experience like this?
Erm, yeah, if you hadn't already guessed, I'm a massive Tori Amos fan. I bought a T-shirt and everything. Still, the excessive amount of fawning you'll find below is deserved praise and - hopefully, anyway - not simply the tired endorsements of an obsessive fanboy. There were people in attendance who are still to enjoy shows in Glasgow and London; an artist who inspires such devotion surely has access to some black market channels of black magick, surely? That, or they reward loyalty by changing their setlists every night. Yup, Amos is one of a few artists - the only person I can think of right now, to be fair - who does not rely on big-hitters night in and night out, and treats audiences to a new show every time. This means attending a gig is sort of like a lottery, but it means there is an unpredictable charge around proceedings and, should she not play your fave song, you'll still leave respecting a gal who refuses to play it safe.
Saying that, the new show does have a framework. Both nights open with the uneasy rumblings of the atmospheric Give, the perfect kick-off in that it showcases the tight inner workings of Tori and band - groove provided by bassist/guitarist Jon Evans and drummer Matt Chamberlain - as well as highlighting that most unique of assets, the ethereal voice that still manages to twist and bend at whim. It's one of a few songs that get an airing off the new record Abnormally Attracted to Sin, proof should it be needed that Amos is more interested in covering her tracks rather than plugging a new album. So, of course, we have two versions of Cornflake Girl, still a live delight despite numerous airings, and an intense Precious Things that comes towards the end of the shows, a big gun that never fails to be a highlight and is made all the more widescreen by a lightshow to end epileptics.
It's when she's playing amidst the formula that Amos truly shines though. The Manchester night is the better of the two shows, the setlist not as mellow as Birmingham's and the Apollo's atmosphere more tangible than that of the stately Symphony Hall. An early play of Caught a Lite Sneeze, which featured on 1996's unhinged Boys for Pele, shows that all bets are off and, not long after, she's playing my favourite ever song (eek, that was a bit Comic Book Guy, no?), ode to masturbation Icicle - having seen it played solo, it's interesting to see it pulled off with the aid of Jon Evans' upright bass and how the song comes alive with drums when it hits its 'Getting off while they're all downstairs' peak. The queasy politics of Pancake precede an off-the-charts Space Dog, a canine that still bites with its multiple stop/start sections, and a beautiful rendition of the ghostly Lust. I must add that, throughout, Tori is straddling a piano seat that sits between her ever-present Bösendorfer and a range of keys and synths, evoking suitable levels of awe as her hands seem to move independently from her body. Oh yeah, did I mention she's also wearing what my accompanying pal calls a 'Star Trek dress'?
The 'Yam Yam' crowd's first act is littered with equally interesting choices, yet a number of them I'd seen played before (as I said, it's a lottery). Still, the beat-driven pop of Bouncing Off Clouds has the seated audience doing the same (even if it's just in their heads) and the time-signature shifts of Carbon are the best kind of uncomfortable. Despite being lovely on record, I would have preferred it if the swirling Concertina - and a later play of the similarly down-tempo Your Cloud (apparently, Birmingham called for a 'cloud' theme) - had been eschewed in favour of something off the new record, and yet we do get treated to the sufficiently creepy Starling and an old favourite in the form of Little Earthquakes, which takes on a tribalistic voodoo edge when live. This time round, Amos is decked out in a blue number that resides over silver leggings, a get-up that I doubt distracted the first few rows - it's a 'shiny crotch' thing - too busy enjoying the nautical nightmare of the jazzy Pandora's Aquarium and the always-welcome Siren, during which Amos looks positively possessed behind her frame of red locks as she bangs away extended piano improvs.
Back in Manc, the first act wraps up with Jamaica Inn, a cut from the reviled The Beekeeper album which actually sounds pretty fit here, and the geography-appropriate Northern Lad, which sweeps the Apollo up and into the heavens when Amos faultlessly hits those high notes. Even Welcome to England, a bit grey in its recorded version, is a drop-dead knockout when watching Amos flit between two different synths and piano in order to account for the song's various layers. Special mention must go to Birmingham here though, as Amos drops a bomb by pulling out Playboy Mommy (it does feature the lyric, 'From here to Birmingham, I got a few friends'); it seems wrong that I was hoping for a song that details Amos's grief at miscarrying, and yet the performance is so cathartic and the audience so respectful that it truly is one of the most special performances I've seen of any song. When Amos sings 'Those angels can't ever take my place' to a lost little girl, it's shivers 'o' clock...
And so the mood is set for Lizard Lounge. Always a highlight of her band shows, Amos will spend the middle section of a gig serenading the audience without help from her boys. It's here where the extent of her talent is so often proved, making one wish she'll take to the road solo again at some point, and this year proves no exception. Both shows get a rarity, the North in the form of a barebones Take Me With You and the Midlands a few bars of John Denver's Leavin' On a Jet Plane leading into B-side Sister Janet. However, it's a couple of standards that take the shivers of Playboy Mommy and turn them into full-blown goosebumps. Brum gets Cloud On My Tongue (yup, more clouds) which blends kooky lyrics with emotional resonance, but it's Manchester's flawless Mother which takes the crown for best solo - if not best overall - performance of the two shows. Complex piano lines combine with shattering vocals, veering from impassioned highs to tiny whispers, for a physically affecting result: as soon as it was over, I felt like I'd run a marathon. And I don't run marathons. If it didn't mean having to miss the next song, I would have run to the bar and bought a wine to help me cope!
There's no mercy from our bewitching hostess in the short term though, as I'm barely given time to regain breath before the wounded Putting the Damage On bleeds into life; you might think its impact might be lessened without the horn section, but you would be wrong wouldntcha? Thankfully, after this one last heart-raping ballad, the tempo is upped considerably at both shows as we enter the final stretch; alas, with the tempo uppage also arrives a change of instrumentation, as the keyboard rig that sits opposite Amos's piano is swiftly swapped for an organ/synth setup. Although quaint Damien Rice duet (he's not here, mind) The Power of Orange Knickers is hardly her most experimental moment, Amos clearly relishes delivering this tale of relationship 'terrorists' before galloping into the new territory of Fast Horse, another fresh 'un that comes alive on stage. Elsewhere, back at the Bullring, Take to the Sky finally brings out her sexy vampish side for a show that has been longing for it - I note to myself that a long-tressed, grungey-looking beardo twitches deliriously in his seat, obviously dying to get up and throw himself about, for the remainder of the set. I want to shake his hand. God knows what his body was doing during Talula, as I couldn't take my eyes off an organ-bashing Amos exorcising this subversive treat.
With the arrival of Strong Black Vine, myself and every other Toriphile in the audience know it will soon be time to bid adieu. It's a fitting send-off though - despite the similar shared knowledge that she'll be back for an encore - as Amos writhes, coils and spits through a song that targets religion, war and greedy oil tycoons with its own specific dark sorcery. Both renditions are powerful but Birmingham just tops this one when, mid-song, Tori loses sound and, as a tech guy runs onstage to reattach whatever bit of technology keeps her sound in check, she improvises a minute-long piano riff and vocal about the perils of live performance, Evans and Chamberlain keeping time as she does. When the issue is solved, she slides back into the second verse - the true mark of a pro if ever there was one. The primal energy of the track is the perfect precursor to the fun and playful Big Wheel, which has wisely been bumped up to 'encore' status after featuring at the top of her sets in 2007; as the ritual is for fans to rush the stage for the final songs, the track's hoedown rhythm and participatory refrain (Tori: 'I am an M.I.L.F.' Audience: 'Don't you for-get!') is much better suited to a crowd who are on their feet. It seems churlish to grumble at the lack of a second encore at both shows - it's pretty much standard for Amos to return twice - and so instead I'll praise her decision to end with the whimsical Tear In Your Hand in Manchester, illuminating us all somewhere deep inside where the imminent house lights can't touch.
So that's it for another year! The only performer, male or female, who could get me to attend two shows in a row once again demonstrated her ability and stamina - two hours plus both nights - while showcasing an untouchable repertoire. The crowd interaction was a little on the short side this time, relegated to an anecdote about a 'cokehead' tour bus driver, news on Tori's daughter's return to school and talk of football loyalties, but it's a small sacrifice for the amount of songs we got in return. Showing no sign of slowing down as she approaches 50, Amos will likely be off the live circuit for a while as she prepares to launch her first musical project, The Light Princess, sometime in the next couple of years. One can only hope the time for another tour - and yet more off-the-wall setlists - is not too far off.
Manchester Apollo - 6 September
Caught a Lite Sneeze
Welcome to England
Take Me With You [solo]
Putting the Damage On
The Power of Orange Knickers
Strong Black Vine
Tear In Your Hand
Birmingham Symphony Hall - 7 September
Bouncing Off Clouds
Leavin' On a Jet Plane/Sister Janet [solo]
Cloud On My Tongue [solo]
Take to the Sky
Strong Black Vine
Caught a Lite Sneeze