As with many veteran rock stars, it’s sometimes hard to fathom just how hot or cold Tori Amos’ 30-year-old solo career is right now. It sometimes seems like she’s past the taking-for-granted phase because she’s never been away for long, and there was certainly that feeling in the air Sunday night for her stop in the DC area of her current” Ocean to Ocean Tour,” his first show here since 2017, which with COVID feels like an eternity.
But there are also signs that it’s never been colder for Amos in the overall pop culture landscape. It’s been a decade since she had a single on any chart and there were no videos or singles from her album “Ocean to Ocean” last fall. It landed just outside the top 100 of the Billboard 200 album sales chart in the United States, a new low that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when its “regular” albums (i.e. ie non-specialized/conceptual) were almost guaranteed in the top 10. debut.
The slide was also quick: 2014’s “Unrepentant Geraldines” reached No. 7, the next album (2017’s polarizing “Native Invader”) only reached 39, then came “Ocean’s” to number. 104. There are a lot of things you could cite to explain it – streaming, its aging Gen X fan base, the endless ripples of the music industry itself – but in some ways, she began to feel like she was getting less and less return on her artistic dollar than one might expect.
Yes, that always happens with veteran female pop stars once they reach their fifties and beyond, but Amos and her small but mighty fan base, who for decades have shown a devotion of the proportions of Grateful Dead, have topped the trend for so long, to see the final catch-up is a bit disconcerting.
But then you’re going to hear it live in a decent-sized venue like The Theater at MGM National Harbor (which seats 3,000 people and was about 97% full), and it almost feels like the good old days. Of course, part of the excitement was just that we were all gagged from being at concerts and that mask restrictions and vaccine requirements were suspended, but there was an electricity that, although milder than it was at Amos gigs in the 90s, always felt magical. I have never seen such a long queue for the merchandising table in my life.
The concert itself was, for the most part, sublime. It was the first time since 2009 that she had toured with a band and while her solo gigs were great too, there was a pent up desire to hear her go wild with a solid rhythm section (Jon Evans on bass, Ash Soan on drums) again. Rhythm-heavy songs like “Raspberry Swirl” and “Cornflake Girl” sounded lukewarm with canned beats lately, so hearing everything really live (barring some BGVs and effects) last night was heavenly.
The show also had a special emotion, as Amos grew up in the area. She wrote and commented extensively on the immense toll her mother’s death in 2019 took on her personally and artistically, so the date which happened to be Mother’s Day gave the proceedings added gravity. ‘Mother Revolution’ and ‘Jackie’s Strength’ were, of course, about the holidays, although (and this is a quibble) I would have much preferred ‘Mother’ from ‘Little Earthquakes’, a deep cut we don’t have heard live for eons.
Highlights included the slinky, rhythmic opener “Juarez”; “Ocean to Ocean,” one of three cuts performed from the new disc, which shimmered with piano arpeggios à la Philip Glass; the vampy and slinky interaction between the three musicians on “Mother Revolution”; and the unexpected fan favorite “Spring Haze.” Amos, on the whole, varies the set list a little less than usual, so it was one of the few surprises of the evening.
The lengths of several of the songs were lengthened considerably. Sometimes — “A Sorta Fairytale,” the aforementioned “Revolution” — it worked well and gave the band time to play languidly. At other times it was a little self-indulgent and even slightly boring – like on “Sweet Sangria” and “Liquid Diamonds”.
“Russia,” a bonus cut from the latest album, sounded exactly like when Amos performed it here in 2017, but took on added resonance due to current events. The closing line “Is Stalin on your shoulder” was chilling.
Overall, the show – lighting, pacing, everything – largely worked. The sound mixing, which fans say has been muddy in some venues recently on the tour, was flawless. The beat was only off a few times in some of the mid-tempo cuts on later albums, but just when you felt some were zoned out – the flow of those going in and out is a good barometer – Amos has pieced things together with a fan favorite like “Beyond the Mission” or “Spring Haze.”
It all came to a satisfying, friendly climax with “Cornflake Girl,” then the two encore tracks, “Precious Things” and “Tear in Your Hand,” both from the debut album.
Vocally the range was there and sounded great, but the punch was held back considerably. Vocal preservation for the many dates to come? Most likely. It’s understandable. Amos, 58, may not have the stamina she had 20 years ago, but she has felt underwhelmed in passages that in years past would have been sold out, balls like the “Bliss” bridge or the “nine-inch-nail” passage from “Precious Things.”
Not a single acknowledgment or mention by Amos of openers from the female folk duo Companion. I would have invited them for a few numbers to sing BGVs. I mean, heck, they’re in the house, why not? And aside from the greeting, a brief soliloquy about Mother’s Day was Amos’ only comment all evening.
Yet Amos has never been so distant. She seemed genuinely excited to perform live again and the queer-heavy crowd responded in kind.