Tori Amos @ Royal Albert Hall, Knightsbridge, London, 9th March 1996 (“the Raisin Girl is not communicating”)

15 Mar

It shouldn’t be like this. Call Tori Amos kooky, pretentious, over-precious, almost anything you like – but don’t call her boring. Not possible. A woman whose mouth and piano strive to out-motor each other, a torrent of perverse creativity, a handful of sharp pins in satin – Tori is riveting even when she’s being irritating.

So why am I spending so much time – up here in the balcony seats – bored? Why the itching urge to check my watch, when on previous tours I’ve been hanging on the edge of my seat?

The reason is that tonight the Raisin Girl is not communicating. Webbed up in the twinkling Santa’s-grotto lights of her stage set, leaning hungrily into her piano or capering over the keys of her harpsichord, Tori is playing resolutely inwards. Hips raked backwards, fingers thundering out melody, head and neck curved to the hovering mike, her face is turned out to us with that familiar elfin, ever-so-slightly ruthless expression. Despite the thrumming love emanating out to her from the capacity crowd, despite the on-stage company of Steve Caton and the soft, sly voices of his textural guitar, she’s never seemed so alone.

For someone who’s opened herself up to us as much as Tori has, this is sad. It’s particularly sad when you consider that she’s playing in Britain, the country that cradled her when she was the unknown émigré and winced as it took the charged barbs of ‘Little Earthquakes’ to its heart. At certain gigs you can feel the heart of the audience, as if it were one huge collective animal. Here, as at all of the Tori Amos gigs I’ve been to, it feels like the love borne for someone you know intimately, quietly, unreservedly.

Tori, though, is having none of it. We sit patiently through some of her recent interminable doodlings (Little Amsterdam is not longer slinky, just tedious; Not The Red Baron is beauty in search of obscurity) and specks of nonsense (the pointless verbal confetti of Space Dog). She plays on. This year, she’s not responding.

No, it’s not blandness that she’s offering us. The fury in her songbook is served well: a scorching rampage through Precious Things with a carnal girl-growl, a twitchy Crucify. The demanding sarcasm of Leather and the tingling, surfing buzz of Cornflake Girl (in which Caton kicks up a silvery storm of rhythm guitar) kick in with that familiar strength. But the sharing that used to set Tori apart from the herd… gone. That grueling romantic break-up with her engineer and onetime confidante Eric Rosse; the red-tinged and ruthless period which spawned the ‘Boys For Pele’ album; both seem to have left her wired and defensive. There have been too many considered steps back from the poised-tenterhook tenderness of Silent All These Years (which, significantly, she doesn’t play tonight.

Maybe this is why Bells For Her – previously a trembling inward coil of twisted, conflicting love played out on a treated piano – has somehow changed into a horrifying banshee curse now that she’s conjuring it out of her harpsichord. Maybe this is why few songs tonight sound as flat-out relished as the vicious, vampiric Blood Roses; why the more restrained snarl of Doughnut Song falls flat; why her infamous, languorous cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit (still missing that essential final verse, but this time with a capricious insert from ‘South Pacific’) seems like a letter abandoned too soon. Oh denial, oh denial.

Tori can still touch and be touched, though. We’re reminded of this in a mutually terrifying moment, one that we’d rather have avoided. Her first-person rape account, Me And A Gun, brings an absolute silence down into this huge hall – and a sense of stretched, time-slowing horror. Suddenly, about four-fifths of the way through, she stops. Dead. Her hand moves to her face in a movement that seems to take forever. A century passes – a terrifying gap into which our attention tumbles. Then she pulls herself together, finishes the song. Swallows the last word, stumbles offstage into darkness and tears.

At a time when she’s professing the most arrogant creative strength, Tori actually seems to be – more than ever before – walking wounded. Despite an assured China, the encores fail to restore confidence. Putting The Damage On trembles and falters; the love-regrets in Baker Baker now seem as detached as a pallid watercolour. Sweet Dreams breaks off as she drums out the rhythm on the lid of the harpsichord and the words slump out of her memory. A harmonium finale of Hey Jupiter is broken-backed, limping off-pitch, beaten down beyond the point of hope. She may have claimed to grab the perverse power of the volcano goddess – from here, it looks as if it’s burning her up from within.

But… so much love filling that enormous Victorian barn. If only she could have brought herself to reach out and accept it.

Tori Amos online:
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The Royal Albert Hall online:
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2 Responses to “Tori Amos @ Royal Albert Hall, Knightsbridge, London, 9th March 1996 (“the Raisin Girl is not communicating”)”

  1. Dann Chinn March 15, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    This was a long time ago now, but the original review still seems worth reposting. At the time I could still afford to go to this kind of concert – that’s a rare event now.

    Looking back, it strikes me that this was transitional Tori in many respects. Not only was she moving away from the one-woman, one-piano setup, and away from theatre gigs into arena performance, but she was also beginning to remove herself from the audience (although ultimately “reposition” is a better word). Perhaps she was discovering one of the problems with being one of those rare performers with whom the audience sympathise, especially one who is female but with a strongly male fanbase (see also Kate Bush… as if Tori needed any more of such comparisons).

    Women in this position aren’t treated so much as titillators, still less as pieces of meat; but they are still treated like territory. Giving to men what appears to be understanding, or giving them a clear window into female thinking, can inspire a fierce and doglike loyalty. This ultimately becomes a loving demand which, while initially stimulating, can begin to weigh heavy and to stifle. It’s not only men who think this way, but I associate it with men who were hungry to communicate and to feel, and for whom a songwriter and performer like Tori drew like a magnet. (To be honest, I was one myself. No surprise there.)

    Maybe Tori was realising this at the time – ‘Boys For Pele’, a difficult album from any perspective, was full of impulses towards reinvention and freedom, even at the cost of consistency or sanity On that album, Tori was multitudes – some waspy, some vicious – when many of us in the audience wanted her to stay in one place and keep that more straightforward flow of confessional coming. Reinvention can be painful – she wasn’t just growing up in public, she was shape-shifting through wilder, soul-rattling territories.

    To our credit as an audience, I think that we understood it too. There were no boos that night, no heckling. Just a feeling of confusion, discomfort… frustrated love. Most of us came back next time.

    Since then, though, Tori’s albums have been a little more distant, her shows a bit more regal and controlled, whether she’s been on her own or surrounded by bigger, noisier, better-armoured bands. She’s grown, and so have we. I myself will never again be the raw-skinned young man perched up in the gods at the Albert Hall, and it’s difficult for me to reach the memory of him now: but I will always remember watching the change that night, seeing an artist I loved contort and move out of reach, and ultimately realising that perhaps it was necessary. Some kinds of love don’t arrive at the right time; or don’t save; or aren’t, ultimately, about the person at the centre of them. She couldn’t have taken comfort from us. We needed to let her move on.

  2. Jared August 14, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

    I just ran across this. Thanks for sharing. My memory of those Dew Drop Inn shows are similar. Here in the states at the few shows I saw on that tour (that seemed to go on an eternity – she was an ever-touring force!) she NEVER said one word between songs, except right before playing “Etienne” on 2 of 3 occasions when I was in attendance. I could feel the frustration from the audience whenever “Pele” songs were played. As much as they love her, in 1996 they did NOT love that album. One night in Columbus, OH she played two shows, and as I was leaving the first, someone in line for the second asked me “How much of Pele did she play?” When I mentioned that it was a good deal, the young lady cringed and said she hoped it wouldn’t be the same set list. I could feel the disdain for songs from Pele in the audience, and that energy wasn’t focused on me. Tori HAD to have noticed. In subsequent years, Tori never again was as open as she was in the early days (LE & UTP). After seeing her on Strange Little Tour; witnessing how tuned out and how uninterested in even being on stage she seemed, that I would never see her live again… that she’d lost her drive. And then Scarlet’s Walk happened. That album was genius at revitalizing Amos’ focus. The journey she took in 2001 shaped her love of America again and that really showed when I broke down and took a chance at seeing her live one more time. It was the best show I’d ever seen her perform. While she still wasn’t talking to us much between songs, she was CONNECTING like she hadn’t done since the UTP tour. And then I stopped. I wanted to remember that show and the way she was onstage at that moment forever. I couldn’t get behind The Beekeeper, ADP, and Abnormally Attracted, as albums, so I certainly wasn’t willing to go see her perform as different characters, or playing dress up with the silly wigs she’s donned since 2005 (?). I hadn’t given much thought to her during the Night of Hunters / Gold Dust years – although if she’d toured in my area with the orchestra I would have gladly shelled out the money. Then Unrepentant Geraldines came along, and it is easily her best work since Scarlet’s Walk. And I again noticed a shift in her personality. She seems more thankful and more communicative with her fans/audience. She’s embraced social media and when I saw her last Thursday (the first time seeing her since 2003), she was so pleasant to behold. She was more chatty than she had been in years and there were great vibes all around going to her and coming to us. I’m really glad I took the chance of seeing her live again. It’s been fun taking a trip down memory lane here.

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