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Culture Reviews
Tori Amos
Crocus City Hall 
By Martin Richardson
Renowned for piano ballads, but reinvented with a string quartet in tow, singer-songwriter Tori Amos seems to be hitting the "mature" phase of her career. As a result Crocus decided to ditch the dancefloor, put the seats back and do its best to ensure that the ambience was one of muted reverence rather than decadent debauchery. Which was a shame in some respects: while the collaboration with Apollon Musagete was never going to set new standards of rock'n'roll excess (it's hard, after all, to get frenzied with a viola), the musical language of much of her new material from "Night of Hunters" was the kind of swirling, late-romantic miasma of heavily chromatic harmony which could have flowed from Wagner or early Schoenberg. A different sort of decadence.

At its best it was ravishingly beautiful. The performance of "Winter", which closed the pre-encore selection, was breath-taking and deservedly brought the house down. Other highlights included "Liquid Diamonds" and "Pandora's Aquarium", old favorites getting a rare live outing. The former was one of several songs which featured the neat party trick of playing two keyboards simultaneously, adding electronic organ sounds to the grand piano which did the donkey work for the show. At other times it was powerfully percussive: "Cruel" got the full treatment, with the quartet standing in for a drum kit with a plucked and slapped sound that recalled Stravinsky or Ravel. A whole new vista of acoustic effects, almost as if drumkits had never existed. This, of course, is why some names stay in the game for longer than others. There are no shortage of pretenders to the crown of quirky female singer songwriter, but few can hope to match Tori's range and breadth. The contrast with the previous week's show by Alina Orlova - another distinctive red-head straddling the borders of classical and pop - was striking: the apprentice getting a masterclass from the sorceress.

Not everything was so successful. "This old man" came across as overblown and overwrought and "Snow Cherries from France" was similarly highly-strung. Perhaps ironically my companion - a big Tori fan - found the performance a bit slow and monotonous; for me, hearing her live for the first time and encountering several unfamiliar songs, it was a much more interesting performance than expected. Previously I'd tended to dismiss her as rather fey and self-absorbed; only on occasion did she slip into that. A third opinion rated it the best gig she'd been to all year and the unusually large crowd at Crocus - even the upper tier seats were open for once - was enraptured.

There was a downside, of course. Since we had the newly classical Tori, we needed a support act to fill in with the piano balladry. Mark Hole may think he's deep, but sadly his self-indulgent tales of low-level relationship woe were simply the pits. Best left to the experts - or buried in a lead-lined vault.

As the evening went on things improved and the crowd steadily warmed up to a Tori set which carried a good mixture of old favorites and recent material. Considering this was only the third show of the tour, the performance was impressively well drilled and, as befits a singer with two decades of music-making behind her, the two-hour set delivered good value for money. By the time we reached the encores, not even the decision to allow the quartet five minutes to play a piece of their own composition (a nice gesture, but ill-advised) could disrupt the mood. We played out with "Siren", a fitting finale for a distinctive voice still at the top of her game, which lured the crowd from their seats to engulf the stage and bury the performers under armfuls of flowers. Even the metro back to civilization seemed a bit faster than usual afterwards!

03.10.11
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