Music News

Tori, Tori

Tori Amos
Symphony Hall, Salt Lake City
June 21, 1996

I've got trouble. Southwest Airlines flight 1787 is scheduled to depart Salt Lake City for Phoenix at seven o'clock on a Monday morning. The departures monitor just inside the door reads 6:53, and the status message beside my gate flashes "Boarding." I wheel around the corner into the main concourse, accelerating for the mad dash, then squeak/slide to a halt at a sight that spikes my heart with fear.

Mormon missionaries. Hundreds of them.
The football field of tile between me and the metal detectors is choked with angelic young men in blue suits, each with an identical rectangle of black plastic pinned to his lapel. Evidently, it's mission launch date. The tags bear the Latter-day Saints logo and their last names, preceded by the title "Elder." Elder Marshall. Elder Whitehead. Elder Quinn. Surrounding them are families--huge families--snapping photos and bidding farewell.

Sprinting is clearly not an option, and as I frantically weave through this phalanx of the Christian Coalition meets "Children of the Damned," a Tori Amos lyric burns through my head:

I want to smash the faces/
of all the beautiful boys.
Women cheered that line from "Precious Things" both times Amos sang it in her back-to-back concerts behind the Zion curtain the Friday before, but I didn't hear any male voices joining in those vengeful choruses. As I wade through the sea of blue polyester, I wonder if any of these boys went to see Tori, indulging in a bit of forbidden pop pleasure as a sendoff for two years of door-to-door evangelism. If they did, they witnessed a power unheard of in their faith--a high priestess. The atmosphere at both of Tori's concerts was strongly one of cathartic, pagan ritual.

A Methodist minister's kid, Amos is now a confirmed heretic. She sings of masturbating instead of taking communion in "Icicle," sarcastically complains "God sometimes you just don't come through" in "God," and routinely blasts organized religion in concert. "My best friend when I was a kid was a girl named Maryanne," Amos told the Salt Lake City audience at her first show as an intro to "Maryanne," which details her friend's suicide. "But Mary was a Catholic, and I think they drove her fucking nuts." Probably not what a Christian carrier of the Word wants to hear on the eve of his departure. Besides, the way Amos strokes the leather of her piano bench between her thighs with one hand while she thunders the chords with the other . . . well, it could lead one to question a pledge of celibacy.

If no missionaries, however, there had to be at least a few Mormon kids in the Symphony Hall capacity crowd of 4,000 who recognized the irony of Amos playing a pair of sold-out concerts a mere two blocks from the Mormon Temple in downtown Salt Lake City. Several hundred people who attended the first concert held tickets to the second as well, and between shows some of them strolled the grounds of temple square, where a statue of Brigham Young stands symbolically with his back to the temple and his hand extended to Zion First National Bank across the street.

Tori's audience ranged in age from preteen to mid-40s, with the majority falling in the 16-to-24 slot. There was a strong Gothic presence in the crowds, perhaps because of Amos' well-publicized friendship with Sandman comic creator Neil Gaimon, and a surprising number of rave kids. The audiences were also more or less evenly split along gender lines, but there was no question that while Tori sang for everyone, she sang specifically to her sex. Like the temple of the Latter-day Saints, admission to Tori's ashram is restricted. Men are relegated to the outskirts, fascinated by what they see and hear, but never quite really getting it.

"Girls, you know what's special about this one," Tori asked, patting the side of her harpsichord before gliding into the medieval toned "Blood Roses." "She has five men to take care of her."

Tori alternated between the harpsichord and her Bosendorfer concert piano for most of each concert, swiveling 180 degrees on her bench from song to song. Both shows drew heavily from her new album Boys for Pele, but also featured popular cuts from her first two recordings, including "Leather," "Silent All These Years," "Winter" and the title track from Little Earthquakes and "Pretty Good Year," "Cloud on My Tongue" and "Icicle" off Under the Pink. Notably missing from either performance were her hits "God" and "Crucify." She opened each performance with the Pele song "Horses" after striding onstage to the opening bars of Dusty Springfield's "Preacher Man." Tori's set list changed from show to show along with her stage wear--slinky black-and-red thing for show one, jeans and a black cape for show two--but she anchored each two-hour performance with "Cornflake Girl" at the midpoint and closed out both with a heart-stopping a cappella rendition of "Me and a Gun."

The harpsichord was rolled away in favor of a pump organ for the encores, which featured a fugue version of the vitriolic "Professional Widow" off Pele (the "starfucker, just like my daddy" song) and a couple gems from Tori's grab bag of trademark covers--"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Purple Rain." Amos' mike stand started to collapse a third of the way through the latter song, and she quickly shifted into a gospel voice, improvising the lyrics "And I'm callin' on you, yes, you, to come on up right now," while pointing to a girl dancing in the front row.

As the chosen one clambered onstage, a security guard raced from the wing, put her in a bear hug and started to drag her away. Tori stopped playing. "Excuse me, hey!" she scolded. "I invited her up here, now you let her go." Released, the girl sat beside Tori and held her microphone. She giggled and waved to her friends at first, but by the end of the song she had her eyes closed and her back arched, her long, blond hair spilling past the bench as she swayed with the music. Chalk it up to the aura of Tori.

Mesmerizing throughout both of her Salt Lake City shows, Amos combined the allure of the Zeppelin-era rock stars, who built a wall of magic between them and their audiences, with the direct connective power of grunge rockers like Kurt Cobain, who tore it down. Writhing on her bench, silhouetted against massive flames raging on the odd-angled multimedia screen behind her, Tori looked like she was channeling the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele from the title of her new album. Yet from the shy waves she used to acknowledge the roar of the crowd as she came onstage to her chatty stage patter, Amos treated her performances like recitals in front of a rather large group of friends.

To screams of "I love you, Tori" piercing the silence between songs, Tori always responded, "I love you, too." Early in the second show, she took a swig of water from the Evian bottle beneath her bench. "Spit water on me, Tori," a boy in front pleaded. "Oh, now, come on. I'm not gonna spit water on you," she replied. "Pleeeeasse." He was begging for it. Instead, she got up and playfully dumped water on the heads of the fetishist and his friends on both sides. The three boys for Tori jumped up and down and spun in ecstatic circles. Their souls had been cleansed.

--David Holthouse

Tori Amos is scheduled to perform two concerts on Tuesday, July 2, at Symphony Hall. Showtimes are 7 and 10 p.m.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse