Shattering seas: Tori Amos at the Royal Albert Hall

Tori Amos' recent performance at London's Royal Albert Hall served as an emotional reminder for Sophie Mayer of the power of song, and of teenage memories

Sophie Mayer, 25 November 2011

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I confess: I vote Tori. I have since 1991, when I saw her supporting... I've forgotten who. Blown out of my mind by the as-yet-unknown Ms Amos coming onstage in a paint-spattered tunic, tights and espadrilles; the last of which she left ceremonially at the front of the stage, before she sat down to play "Crucify." Twenty years later, I can still hear the nervous gulp of the guy sitting next to me as she unleashed the song.

Without that unexpected encounter in 1991, I may never have been switched on to feminist performers, or feminism itself, or to all the singers and thinkers who helped me while working through adolescence

So this review of her most recent tour, for the new album Night of Hunters, which I saw at the Royal Albert Hall on 2 November, is biased, and unapologetic for being so: I'm out. For a long time, I disguised my Toriphile tendencies behind ardour for cooler musicians and bands, from Björk and PJ Harvey through Kristin Hersh and Kathleen Hanna to Jean Grae and Speech Debelle. As Tiger Beatdown's amazing Sady Doyle, wrote in Bitch recently, many Tori fans have found themselves in the same situation - as if admitting to being a Tori fan is as shaming as confessing to some of the topics she sings about, from masturbation to suicide to abuse.

But the truth is, that without that unexpected encounter in 1991, I may never have been switched on to feminist performers, or feminism itself, or to all the singers and thinkers who helped me while working through adolescence and, later, coming out as an incest survivor. So going to a Tori show is as close as I come to a religious experience. (Religion being an experience I generally try to avoid).

Which brings me to the strange, powerful co-incidence of seeing the singer of "Me and a Gun" and founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network on the evening that Julian Assange lost his case against extradition in the British High Court. Having this news buzzing in my pocket just as I stepped into the show made the encore of "Winter" even more shattering - so shattering that the rest of the concert would have been (if I hadn't taken notes) a bit of a blur.

The staging consisted of 30 foot high cinched drapes and a chandelier suspended above her piano. With the performer also draped, in apricot silk (concealing silver spike heels), it was perhaps inevitable that the concert would, at times, take on the air of a drawing-room recital.

Quite appropriately, as Amos's latest album, Night of Hunters was released on Deutsche Grammophon, and the quartet Apollon Musagete, are classical musicians. Amos, trained at the Peabody Institute in America, has always brought classical musicianship to her compositions, fusing it with a rock n roll spirit.

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An opening back catalogue tour that definitely and defiantly rocked and rolled: the songs seemed chosen for their floozy, woozy cabaret style, a dive bar looseness at delicious odds with the grand setting. "Precious Things" and "Cruel/Raspberry Swirl," towards the end of the set took this even further, the latter uncanny, dark techno, and the former fusing burlesque and banshee into an overwhelming exorcism of "those demi-gods with their nine-inch nails and little fascist panties tucked inside the heart of every nice girl."

It was a stark, lovely, dramatic reminder of the twenty years that have passed since Nevermind and Little Earthquakes were released, and of how a song can instantly cancel the passage of time and make you thirteen again, and hearing Tori Amos for the first, astonishing time, not knowing it might save your life

These loud and proud tracks also provided a striking contrast to other back catalogue picks, songs about vulnerable, swooning girlhood, charmed by and charged with the presence of Amos' daughter Natashya in the audience: songs written about Amos' teenage years now seem fraught with a mother's awareness of the dangers and opportunities awaiting her pre-teen daughter.

Natashya duets on five tracks on the new album, giving voice to a spirit who guides Amos' persona through the dissolution of a relationship. While this sounds hokey, part of what I love is Amos' willingness to go into "all that is most radical, embarrassing, pretentious, and mystificatory in the lyric," as Jonathan Culler says of Romantic poetry.

Of the new tracks, the album and concert opener "Shattering Sea" lived up to its name, played at a faster tempo than the recording and exhibiting Amos' tremendous attack on the piano and her vocal rage and release. "Nautical Twilight" and "Fearlessness," mixed in with the back-catalogue cabaret, both had the presence to sound potentially like classic Amos, but the epic "Star Whisperer" was more musak: it felt both underwhelming and over-dressed with the string quartet rather than full orchestra behind its simple lyrics.

The show was bookended by cover versions "Shattering Sea" was followed by a haunting version of "Scarborough Fair," its lyrics tweaked, as so often in Amos' versions of folk songs, and "Winter" segued into one of the covers that featured on the Winter EP: Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a contemporary anti-anthem.

It was a stark, lovely, dramatic reminder of the twenty years that have passed since Nevermind and Little Earthquakes were released, and of how a song can instantly cancel the passage of time and make you thirteen again, and hearing Tori Amos for the first, astonishing time, not knowing it might save your life.

Photos of Tori Amos by Tim Teeling, shared via a creative commons licence.

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About the author

Sophie Mayer

Sophie Mayer is the author of Her Various Scalpels (Shearsman, 2009) and The Private Parts of Girls (Salt, 2011), as well as The Cinema of Sally Potter (Wallflower, 2009). She recently curated a retrospective of feminist documentary for Punto de Vista, and writes about feminist, queer and independent cinema and literature for Sight & Sound, Horizon Review, Hand + Star, Sound and Music, The F-Word and her own blog, deliriumslibrary.

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