Concert Review: Tori Amos @ Massey Hall, Toronto 12/8/11

I have to admit it: going into this show, I wasn’t very enthusiastic at all.  Having bought the ticket before Amos’ latest disc, Night of Hunters, leaked, I was disheartened upon hearing the album that it didn’t impress me much at all – especially since the thought of Tori and a string section in the past had left me salivating at the thought.  This being the third album in a row that has not connected with me, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about seeing her live this time.

It was a mixed emotion day for me: I wasn’t happy with the new album; the setlists seemed mostly patchy, or loaded with older, overplayed songs; and I also missed the Meet and Greet for the first time ever since I began seeing her live in 1999.  The latter point was made up for by a surprise entourage of amazing people showing up at the pub for dinner with me, but the former considerations left me apprehensive.  No one wants a favourite artist to be a letdown.

Luckily, Tori knocked it out of the park, in the end.

The opening wasn’t too impressive, in my books:  after Shattering Sea (my only love of the new disc) and Way Down (my request, granted by Tori, who then passed along that she was sorry I couldn’t make the Meet and Greet), we slid into Suede, a song I normally like but wasn’t overwhelmed by in this incarnation.  Next came Midwinter Graces number Star Of Wonder, and while I loathe Christmas music and wasn’t thrilled, I was very happy she’d granted the request for it, made by a ten year-old boy (whom I’ll get back to later). I just wish she’d dropped NOH clunker Nautical Twilight instead of Beulah Land to fulfill it!

But then, magic happened:  Maybe California popped out, accompanied by beautifully arranged strings, and I smiled, for it’s one of the few songs I adore on 2009’s Abnormally Attracted To Sin.  The thought of how I’d spent 2007’s December running around California’s warmth, soaking up Tori’s tour for my beloved American Doll Posse slipped in, and it clicked:  just as ever, I was home.

That’s what a Tori Amos show is truly about: a sense of belonging to an enormous, wild, highly dysfunctional (in good and bad ways) family.  It’s comfort, catharsis, and community.

So I settled in, and let Tori take me on a journey loaded with material from my favourite album, From The Choirgirl Hotel, including my favourite song, Spark (which is how she remembers me, apparently – such is how often my friend and I both request it in this city).  We no longer ask for it; she simply plays it, every tour since 2005.  She knows the cities she plays, knows who lives where.  It’s why her cover of Angie likes to pop out in Boston, why Marys of the Sea loves to emerge in Montreal.

Jackie’s Strength, for the record, was the best I’ve heard it: gone is the annoying echo that lended a ridiculousness to a poignant song.  Cooling (written during Pele, released during Choirgirl) was more emotional that the last few times I’ve heard it, and Playboy Mommy was a sucker punch to the stomach and a heart ripped from the chest and thrown to the floor.  Winter, too, was particularly memorable, although the night’s performance of Taxi Ride was the closest rival to Playboy Mommy’s evocative peformance, with its whispered, bitterly muttered, “we are one crap, as you’re invading”.

And, much to my delight, most of the Night of Hunters material improved in live incarnation, so much so that I…. dare I say enjoyed them?  Iffy tune Fearlessness became pleasant to hear, while a pretty good Star Whisperer shines brightly, the same-y vocals I chiefly complained about ditched for a more varied delivery.  Nothing will save Nautical Twilight for me, and Edge of the Moon still feels melodically like a poor sequel to Flying Dutchman, but it was better than hoped for, and reassuring.

The real remarkable aspect of the tour, and the reason the show was so enjoyable, is how well (most) songs take to their reworked form, accented by the strings supplied by the brilliant Apollon Musagète quartet.  Favouring many of the electronic works for a fresh coat of paint, Amos succeeds on the whole, although I found the accompaniment for Hey Jupiter distracting, discordant in beat and emotion, and found Suede too tame.  Spring Haze soars, and Precious Things enchants, but I give the highlight of the night to Cruel, in the best live version I’ve ever heard.  Dark, foreboding, and with vocals more like the studio version I adore (and less nasal), she winds slowly and seductively about you, even as Tori interjected the beseeching line from Yes, Anastasia: “Girls, what have we done to ourselves?”

The interjection of song within song also came into play during a raucous and crowd-thrilling rendition of Take To The Sky, where the elusive Datura came out to tease the audience with its “Is there room in my heart?” bridge.  Utterly genius, and earned such loud applause, Amos almost had to literally say, “Okay, enough!” as she flushed and smiled.  Her good mood carried to the encore, where she playfully teased, “You just don’t know what’s coming, do you!” as she shuffled her papers, cued the quartet, and debuted an upbeat Father Lucifer.

Yes, I am a somewhat jaded fan, but as I stood at the stage during my 34th show, I looked around at my fellow Ears With Feet, and remembered what it was like to first fall in love with the fiery redhead.  I stood behind a man at his first show, giddy for hearing his request and being upgraded to front row.  I tucked a ten year-old filled with wonder in front of me, watching him hit the stage and shout in joy as Precious Things began, and I couldn’t help but grin.  Maybe I won’t ever love another album; maybe the next will blow me away.  The shows, however, always pull me back in, and it’s a very good thing.

But Tori please, for the love of the faeries: stop playing Massey Hall, the most fan-unfriendly venue in the city?  I’m pretty sure every usher you’ve ever booted from a show now works there…

SETLIST: TORI AMOS @ MASSEY HALL, TORONTO 12/8/11

Shattering Sea
Way Down [Solo]
Suede
Star of Wonder [John Hopkins] [Solo]
Nautical Twilight
Maybe California
Jackie’s Strength [Solo]
Cooling [Solo]
Playboy Mommy [Solo]
Winter
Spark
Star Whisperer
Take to the Sky [w/Datura bridge; Solo]
Taxi Ride [Solo]
Songbird [Fleetwood Mac] [Solo]
Fearlessness
Hey Jupiter
Spring Haze
Cruel

A Multitude of Shades
Father Lucifer
Edge of the Moon
Precious Things
Big Wheel

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