Performing non-stop for nearly two hours on Monday night, Tori Amos sang and played like a woman possessed by the need for release.
At least once during her concert in the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Amos got it.
You could have heard a pin drop during the a cappella version of ‘Me And A Gun’, Amos’ harrowing meditation on a rape.
And then, remarkably, Amos exorcised her demons with a cleansing rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.
Throughout the show, nestled between her acoustic harpsichord and piano, this elfin redhead seemed a fitting messenger for the Hawaiian goddess Pele. This mythical figure, whose volcanic temper seethes beneath the most calm and beautiful exteriors, inspired Amos in the making of her latest album, Boys for Pele.
Making liberal use of her muscular soprano, backup guitarist Steve Caton and three albums’ worth of original material, Amos sketched out a rich and emotionally volatile musical landscape.
Her voice is a far more impressive instrument live than on record. The presence of an audience clearly inspired her to go beyond the overly mannered octave-size leaps and rote ad-libs that characterize her studio work. While it’s true that her songwriting too often taps into the stylistic vocabulary of Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, more distinctive voicings and flourishes surface in Amos’ live presentations.
From the baroque harpsichord riffs of ‘Blood Roses’ to the more modern synthesized sounds used in ‘Little Amsterdam’, Amos asserted her right to mix and match elements from any point in the history of Western music. She even deployed a vintage harmonium organ for ‘Hey Jupiter’, which sounded like a delightfully improbable fusion of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ and Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’.
To say that most of the songs Amos performed were about relationships unfairly precludes all the other things her songs allude to: religion, politics, self-image and drugs, both metaphorical and pharmaceutical.
It is this openness that rewards repeated listening to Amos’ material whether the lyrics are fitted to the jittery tarantella of ‘Precious Things’ or the soul syncopations of ‘Cornflake Girl’. And at times, her intensity was leavened by sharp wit.
But only unflinching self-analysis could create the clarity of ‘Leather’ or ‘Donut Song’, the most memorable selections of the diverse, demanding and brilliantly executed set.
Hovering somewhere between true intimacy and sly in direction, the quirky, cryptic narratives of ‘Pretty Good Year’ and ‘Icicle’ slipped through the singer’s lips like the riddles of a Cheshire cat. This is the charm of Tori Amos, that she can smile and look girlish even while chanting up a plague of locusts.
© Carol Cooper, New York Daily News, 15 May 1996