Review: Tori Amos (Royal Albert Hall)

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My photo, between acts.

This was a mad dash to get to and from, a bit ambitious for a weekday night, though totally worth it for Tori herself. Of the support acts, whilst I very much enjoyed the venue (imposing enough to count as a support act), I could have done well without Bell X1. It might just take all my willpower not to refer to them as Bellend1 more than this once, but I’ll try to keep the complaining brief before I get on to the enthusing.

They seemed a curious choice for a support act to Tori Amos, whose music is generally experimental or kooky in some way or another, whose lyrics are personal and challenging, and whose skill in making the piano a grunge instrument remains unrivaled. Perhaps whoever booked them had only heard some of Tori’s more staid recent album tracks, as Bell X1 are the worst kind of Irish stadium rock, grimly ploughing a path behind 2000s-era U2. If I say that Damien Rice was a bit too edgy for them you’ll get the idea (full disclaimer: I actually really love his album O). I’m also not really a fan of the kind of high-pitched, breathy singing favoured by the likes of Bon Iver and Sigur Ros, and this was more of the same (Sigur Ros via Snow Patrol perhaps?), so it was never going to win me over. Still, my despair came pretty swiftly in their first song as the bland singer cooed ‘oh god, I’m such a drama queen!’ over inoffensive warm guitar music. Their Wikipedia page compares them to Talking Heads! Talking Heads for chrissake! I don’t understand stadium rock. I don’t understand one bit. Sure, there was a Star Wars reference in once song (‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’) and when a different band member sang one song it picked up a little. But not my kind of thing at all, really. I’d much rather Tori had started earlier and we’d had an extra encore.

I’d also much rather have had a better view of the stage, but you can’t have everything, and at least the RAH apparently sounds glorious no matter where you are, which is the main thing. The lighting was pretty cool too, swirling over the audience as though we were alternately trapped in a kaleidoscope or a snow globe.

As I left I overheard a somewhat bemused concert-goer comment “she really likes her pedals, doesn’t she?” Yes, anonymous concert-goer, Tori does like her pedals. And, with her liberal use of them, what a job she did of filling that vast building with sound. On stage it was just Tori on her stool between keyboard and piano, her mid-song transitions between the two rows of keys seamless and long-practiced. On a few songs she had a backing track, noticeable particularly on tunes from Scarlet’s Walk (2002), where the drum-beat helped shift ‘Pancake’ and ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ into something like trip-hop remixes of themselves. And her voice has endured wonderfully; when Tori does breathy vocals you can hear the full power of her body behind her careful use of air. It doesn’t sound effortless because it isn’t: it’s a whisper designed to cut through the boom of the piano. She can still hit most of the high-notes, and though she might not have the endurance for some notes that she used to have, she’s accomplished at tweaking her songs here and there to bring them into line with what her voice is capable of now. Songs from her first album are still absolute highlights.

The set-list was a satisfying mixture of fan favourites and new material, with a couple of classic Tori covers (now performed under the sub-heading ‘the Fake Muse Network’ with a Fox-like graphic). I’ve been meaning to write up a review of her recent album, Native Invader (2017), but don’t yet feel I’ve really had a chance to fully immerse myself in it enough to do it justice. It’s grown on me very quickly though, and songs that rather passed me by on the first listen now stand out — one such example is Reindeer King, which got a play after the Fake Muse Network. A cheeky cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ (songs of joy and peace become ‘songs of reindeer’) led into Reindeer King with a typically understated wryness, the warm orange of the lighting giving way to cool blues and whites in the second half of the set. ‘Russia’ and ‘Breakaway’ were her other selections from the new album, and though I’ve have picked ‘Up the Creek’ and ‘Bang’ (or just the latter if I could only have one), both stood up well against material from To Venus and Back (1999) (which I confess to not knowing well at all) and earlier songs.

Now over twenty years old, ‘Beauty Queen/Horses’ was a particular highlight, as was ‘Cloud on my Tongue’, and the crowd rejoiced to hear both ‘Silent All These Years’ and ‘Precious Things’ — oh the cheer that went up at the line ‘so you can make me come/it doesn’t make you Jesus’. It may have been my first Tori gig, but my excellent companion assured me that was a common response, and we agreed that a small mosh pit would be ideal for future Tori gigs. Sitting primly through ‘Precious Things’ as she wrings the piano for all it’s worth isn’t nearly as much fun as leaping and punching the air would be. But even up where we were, with only an awkward view of the stage side-on, we were utterly absorbed in the music.

She joked that the first time she’d played in London, for ’40 quid’, it had been at someone’s birthday party and she’d attended with Neil Gaiman. She self-deprecatingly described the misery of the birthday guests as she played through the track-listing of Little Earthquakes (1992), even as the present audience was still in raptures over hearing the title track. The resilience and defiance in her lyrics is a large part of the appeal, and her fans are ferociously loyal to the music that brought them to her. It seems to me that on her new album she’s got more to say than she’s had for a while, and it shows in the quality of the songs. Just like the old favourites that still get the biggest cheers, music in the face of adversity — personal, political or historical — is what she does best. The people at that birthday party might not have needed to hear that sort of music, but there are plenty of people out there who do. It was fun to share such a vast space with them for a night, though in future I will try to seek her out at smaller venues, and I’ll probably give the support acts a miss…

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