By John Dickerson Photos by Luke Holwerda
Better than: Watching some crap on YouTube.
It’s one thing to see a “live musician” perform with a computer DJ, surrounded by blinding special effects. It’s quite another to hear the naked soul of a songwriter, accompanied only by her own piano (and three light bulbs for special effect). The latter proves far more compelling -- at least when the singer pounding the keys and beat-boxing the lyrics is Regina Spektor.
Spektor’s hit “Fidelity” put her on the charts in December 2006, but it’s her live charisma, arresting writing, and exclusive style that make her an idol to her fawning fan base. On Sunday, November 4, a couple thousand of those fans (mostly young women dressed like clones of Spektor, a 27-year-old Moscow-born New Yorker) packed themselves under the Orpheum’s ornate, night-sky ceiling. The setting, crowd, and lone grand piano provided an almost operatic atmosphere.
Spektor walked out smiling, a glass of water in hand. Without a word of introduction, she grabbed the microphone and sang straight-up a capella, her voice alone filling the theater.
Recipe for a Regina-tini
Spektor’s voice alone could carry a significant a capella performance. Her original piano compositions alone could make for a beautiful concert. Her poetic lyrics alone could make for a moving poetry reading.
Combine all of the above and then multiply by a unique ability to bend and break her voice, whispering and jolting over pitches and under pauses. Add a dash of play-like spirit, her “ba-dum-pa” into the microphone, or her tapping rhythm onto a mic’d chair (often in sync with the melody she’s pounding out with one hand on the piano), and the result is that it feels like you’re snooping on a prodigy/genius who’s humming and singing masterpieces to herself.
One-part Beethoven, one-part Shakespeare and one-part John Lennon.
She’s a singer, not a talker
Spektor’s only words during her two-hour performance consisted of “thanks” and “thank you.” More artist than entertainer, she said not another word to her cowtowing crowd. No comic relief or puns about traveling the world as a famous musician. Just a woman with a voice, stories as deep as a Soviet widow’s, and a piano.
At one point, Spektor played an electric guitar. She giggled nervously as she held it, her loose dress looking a bit like she’s a 12-year-old in her mom’s PJs. She’s obviously less comfortable with the guitar than she is behind the keyboard, but the crowd applauded just as eagerly.
What’s she singing about?
Spektor writes her songs about fictitious characters, which gives her lyrics a wisdom and realm of experience far beyond her age. Her formative nine years in Moscow also give her an understanding of difficulty well-beyond contemporary American songwriters. During “One More Time With Feeling,” a song about a hospital stay, Spektor sings:
“Your stitches are all out but your scars are healing wrong. The helium balloon inside your room has come undone, and it’s pushing up at the ceiling, and the flickering lights it cannot get beyond.
The chorus is a soulful plea for life.
“Hold on, One more time with feeling, Try it again. Breathing’s just a rhythm. Say it in your mind until you know that the words are right. This is why we fight.”
Heard live, the song is a near-guarantee for chills on the arms. Even in her most somber songs, Spektor’s optimistic core emanates, either through her lyrics or the playful sounds whispered and shouted into the microphone.
She has a way of combining the deepest human fears and most universal pains with the lightest of universal frivolities, like being a kid or walking by a Walgreen’s.
Her key changes and rhythms sound Russian one moment and hip-hop the next, quickening pace or slowing dynamically from Eminem mouthful rushes to simple, childlike whispers.
All this complexity, and yet it’s one instrument and a voice. Spektor takes simple songs and makes them terribly entertaining (in one, she’s washing the dishes and dips her head under the bubbles for a look around. In another, a sock-footed man steps “on a loogie”), but for the most part, she doesn't entertain with the simple. She shines in the complex.
In “Ghost of Corporate Future,” a song about cubicle enslavement, Spektor sings:
“Imagine you go away On a business trip one day. And when you come back home, Your children have grown, And you never made your wife moan. Your children have grown, And you never made your wife moan.”
“And people make you nervous You'd think the world is ending, And everybody’s features have somehow started blending And everything is plastic, And everyone’s sarcastic, And all your food is frozen…”
Encore, encore, encore, encore
As is her routine, Spektor saved the best for last. Or you could say, the best four last. That’s right. Spektor regularly plays a four-song encore. And she did for the Orpheum, including her most well-known song, “Fidelity,” as well as her hair-raising “Apres Moi,” in which she muses one entrancing verse in her native Russian.
Spektor finished the show with her own rendition of John Lennon’s “Real Love.” At that point, I was thinking there must be at least four voices and four musicians inside this one-woman show.
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Spektor’s albums hint at a sixth element talent that breaks -- or rather, blends -- the rules of classical, rock, blues, pop and hip-hop. Heard live, that sixth element breaks free, swims around the room, and seeps into the audience. The result is a chilling (literally) performance -- vibrating, emanating, jaw-dropping.
Personal bias: We all have a crush on Regina Spektor.
Random detail: We could not get an interview with Regina Spektor.