Smart Financial Centre
April 30, 2022
Those of you of, ahem, a certain vintage may well remember the 1990s. Aside from the political upheavals that ushered in that particular decade, it was a time music fans will recall for the rise to prominence of female singer-songwriters. It wasn’t the first time women were singing about issues like sexual assault, stalking, and abortion, but those stories were finally acceptable in mainstream-adjacent arenas like MTV and college radio.
Tori Amos remains one of the most significant and persistent voices arising from that era. Her debut (solo) album, Little Earthquakes, dropped in 1992. Prior to that, she’d embarked on an ill-received synth-pop endeavor known as “Y Kant Tori Read.” Their eponymous album was a critical and financial disappointment and led to the band’s breakup and Amos’s reevaluation of her career priorities.
The rest, as one might say, is herstory. LE was a critical darling, establishing Amos at the forefront of the ’90s female singer-songwriter movement, where she bridged the divide between Sarah McLachlan’s atmospherics and the more confrontational approach of Courtney Love or Kat Bjelland. Critics may have harped on so-called florid arrangements and melodramatic lyrics, but no one could deny the power of songs like “Me & a Gun” or “Cornflake Girl.”
Call it a happy coincidence that her latest tour commences 30 years after the release of her solo debut. The third date of Amos’s Ocean to Ocean tour landed her at Smart Financial Centre Saturday night. It was her first Houston show in 15 years, and — based on the audience’s reaction — she has indeed been missed.
Flanked by bassist Jon Evans and drummer Ash Soan, Amos played her faithful Bösendorfer and multiple keyboards in the bench-straddling style that’s long been her trademark. She kicked the night off with “Juarez,” an experimental number from To Venus and Back about murdered female maquiladora workers. And if that was somehow disappointing to people hoping for a nostalgia tour, so much the better.
To our credit, the reaction to the next song (“Bouncing Off Clouds”) was robust enough to cause Amos to exclaim, “What a night! What a crowd!” before inviting us to come travel with the aforementioned Bösendorfer. This sentiment was cheered by lots of people I can only assume have never had the, uh, pleasure of moving a grand piano.
Her show was also a reminder that she’s never really gone away. A lack of Houston dates notwithstanding, Amos still tours on the regular and releases albums that consistently chart well. That said, the set relied heavily on her earlier efforts, even as her latest album was most well-represented.
Those Ocean to Ocean entries included the haunting title track and three other cuts (“Devil’s Bane” and “Addition of Light Divided,” most notably). No other album saw more than two songs played, and that was without her fine cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
And even pushing 60, her mezzo-soprano voice is still capable of everything from a whisper to, well, not a scream exactly. A snarl, maybe? So much of the power of her songs comes from how bluntly she delivers lines like, “You’ve been wasting all my time this time” (“Doughnut Song,” still including its Houston call-out). While “Crucify” and “Tear in Your Hand” were as powerful as ever.
Amos can be a challenging hang, honestly. Mixed time signatures, difficult subject matter, piano aerobics. There’s a reason her fans are as … enthusiastic as they are. In this case, at least, their enthusiasm is warranted. It’s hard to recall a recent live performance as virtuosic as Tori Amos.
The 21st century kicked off with 9-11 and ushered in our militaristic new normal, with attendant nu-metal and generic bro rock shoving Amos and her contemporaries out of the spotlight. It’s a testament to her talent and resilience (and shrewdness in relocating to England) that Tori Amos remains as powerful a performer as she is. Last night’s gig was just shy of two hours, but she could have played three and nobody would’ve said boo.
Personal Bias: I was a waiter in Maryland in the mid-’90s, and one of my regular tables were family friends of the Amos clan. Took me a while to figure out who they were talking about when they kept referring to “Ellen.”
The Crowd: Tattoos really are forever, aren’t they?
Overheard In The Crowd: “I have a Lilith Fair playlist.”
Random Notebook Dump: “To paraphrase The Freshman: she’s kind of a genius.”
Bouncing Off Clouds
Ocean to Ocean
Take to the Sky
Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen cover)
Addition of Light Divided
Black Dove (January)
Tear in Your Hand