Tori Amos does sad better than most anyone. Survivor of religion, rape, marriage, and a recent miscarriage, the thirtysomething singer/pianist performs live with an intensity that amplifies her own inner heartbreak. But unlike inimitable Polly Jean Harvey or girl-wonder Alanis Morissette, Amos doesn't traffic over-the-top expressions of ire, the essential ingredient for cathartic, headbanging rock concerts. Instead, she creates an intimate rapport between herself and the audience through mere words, melody, and lulling piano lines. Last week at the Oakland Arena Amos managed to evoke the characteristic intimacy that's drawn countless fans since her 1991 debut, Little Earthquakes. But she also jeopardized the effect by trying too hard to achieve a power rock-concert dynamic with a very loud band.
In concert and on record, Amos charms listeners with the passion of her vocals, the poetry of her lyrics, and the beautiful music of her stage presence. At the Arena, that presence surprisingly lacked artifice even though Amos demonstrated her progish penchant for hitting both the Bssendorfer and the electric keyboard at the same time, arms wide and hair flailing like a youthful Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson.
The set list must have pleased both plebs and die-hards. Fresh arrangements of recent hits ("Spark," "She's Your Cocaine") and old favorites ("Cornflake Girl," "Precious Things") played up the emotional nuances of her material, but Amos also occasionally balanced the confessional sobriety with well-timed comic relief (e.g., Black Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf" in the middle of "Cocaine"). And her ethereal voice always soared high above the big noise of her rocker sidekicks.
Amos' current album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, is by far her "heaviest" to date. The singer played half of the Choirgirl tunes at the show, including the stealthy "Iieee," the candidly bitchy "Cruel," and the especially moving "Jackie's Strength." Multilayered with a super high-fidelity digital punch and more electric grooves than on her past three full-lengths, the disc intensifies the singer's piano-bar approach.
A quasi-mystic queen of hearts, Amos and her songs scan the heavens and beyond for spiritual healing. She travels to "the other side of the galaxy" on "Black-Dove (January)," a Choirgirl tune she opted not to play in Oakland. On "Happy Phantom," one of the best songs of the night -- and one of only two pieces performed without the band -- she cracked the rollicking lines, "And if I die today, I'll be the happy phantom/ And I'll go chasin' the nuns out in the yard." On the same tune, the singer found solace pretending she was "Judy Garland taking Buddha by the hand."
Amos' personal cosmology encompasses the great divine hierarchies and then some -- Christ and Judas, angels and devils, Pandora, Aphrodite, Sufism, fairies -- in a mix-and-match belief system where everything is possible and nothing unreal. The more flamboyant of her followers visibly buy into this concept as well. The devout wore magenta-dyed tresses, glitter-flecked faces, and lame outfits of sparkly golds, blues, and reds. A few fairies with diaphanous wings and shimmering tiaras even turned out ready to flutter off on Tori Amos' phantasmic falsetto.
But inasmuch as the transcendental figures into her vision, so too does carnal revelry. A power-player with words, Amos layers much of her material with sexual innuendo, double entendre, or blatant metaphor, as on the groovy dance track "Raspberry Swirl," which brought down the disco balls and got the glamour boys bumping out of their seats on the first encore as if it were the Folsom Street Fair. The heavy breathing on "Waitress" was classic Tori Amos, the lyrics on "Cruel" -- "Even the rain bows down let us pray as you cock-cock-cock your mane" -- a master stroke of gender-bent religio-sexual bemusement.
Pop psychologists would say that she's overcompensating for the guilt and shame she still feels from her Bible-bound upbringing as a minister's daughter. But no one at this gig seemed to mind when she grabbed her crotch midsong and bucked the piano bench. One longtime fan said she used to rock the bench at solo shows until she had an orgasm -- or at least that's what it looked like. She clearly restrained herself at the Arena. These days Amos wants to live out a rock 'n' roll fantasy, and it's obvious she hired the right band to do it. But anyone who's seen Amos writhe alone knows that she does just fine all by herself.
-- Sam Prestianni
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Wednesday, Sept. 16
Nick Cave's sentimental music has the capacity to lurch into pure violence at the twist of a knife. Onstage, the British-cum-Australian singer crosses the slithering insincerity of a lounge lizard showman with compulsive acts of passion -- religious, sexual, and violent. At the first of two sold-out Warfield shows last week, Cave & the Bad Seeds' maudlin compulsion made for an eviscerating performance that exposed the vicious underside of love and sexuality through surreal irony, stage-crafted melodrama, and the way both controlled and unexpected dynamics can change and affect live art.
In the four years since his last U.S. tour, Cave released two albums, Murder Ballads in 1996 and The Boatman's Call in 1997. The last time Cave appeared in the States, he suffered from an absurd, almost diabolically assigned daytime slot on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour that pitted the dark, late-night lothario against the searing summer sunshine and the indifference of altrock teens anxiously awaiting Smashing Pumpkins. The timing was, at the very best, bizarrely unfortunate.
The recently issued Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds compiles tracks spanning the group's 14-year history and serves as the foundation for this tour. Cave's career, as well as that of guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, began in the late '70s in Melbourne, Australia, as members of underground punk band Boys Next Door. Cave and Harvey changed the name of their group to the Birthday Party and moved to London where their harrowing art rock turned them into post-punk cult heroes. In the process, Cave became a poster boy for tousled-black-hair-gothic-cowboy-heroin-addict chic. After the Birthday Party's breakup in late 1983, Cave recruited Harvey along with bassist Barry Adamson and guitarist/vocalist Blixa Bargeld from the equally cult-adored EinstYrzende Neubauten to sire the Bad Seeds. Since then, Cave's grappled with and defeated heroin addiction, written a novel, married, become a father, divorced, and released 12 albums. Along the way, he's finally been acknowledged outside the realm of goths and punks.