This belated but extremely welcome release represents a terrific way to time travel. The latest addition to Eagle Vision’s admirable Live At Montreux series, the DVD pairs one of our favourite piano-pounder’s earliest recorded solo performances at the Swiss festival in 1991 with footage of her return in ’92 – that is, directly pre and post the release of Little Earthquakes. Seventeen (gulp!) years down the line, it’s easy to forget the serious shock and awe that Amos generated when she first appeared on the scene. These performances, previously available only as an unofficial audio bootleg, serve as a potent reminder and a very valuable record of the first time these now-classic songs met the world. If you thought you’d already had your fill of early Amos then think again: this DVD is a very special item indeed.
Mastered by Amos’s current crew, the sound and picture quality of both performances is superb. The 1991 show, performed six months before the release of her seminal album, is particularly captivating, however, since it represents the first exposure of this material to an audience larger than a handful of disinterested Mean Fiddler punters or a few friends in Amos’s living room. Throughout the set, the viewer experiences the thrilling sensation that Amos was still in the process of discovering these songs herself, and finding out for the first time the kind of impact that they could have upon an attentive audience. There are no Bösendorfer grands at this stage; rather, Amos operates a modest Yamaha electric piano, the relative humbleness of which fails to seriously inhibit the power and vibrant passion of her playing. Dressed in the Earthquakes-cover outfit and surrounded by the instruments and equipment of the band she was opening for (The Moody Blues), Amos projects an enthralling mixture of diffidence and defiance here, effortlessly disarming an audience who were probably ill-prepared for the ferocity of her exorcisms and the sheer intensity that a red-headed girl and a piano can generate. “This is really different for me cos I always played in my living room…this is a big living room,” she tells the crowd.
But in no way is this simply a document of a performer just finding her feet. Instead, years of lounge and bar performances are evident in the confidence and brio that Amos displays. The unmistakable Tori trademarks – the remarkable synergy between voice, fingers and piano keys; the expressive body language; the impeccable command of rhythm, tone and tempo; the lightening-fast shifts between emotions and moods; the intensity offset by wit and humour – are fully present, albeit in rawer form, revealing conclusively the embeddedness both of her rock leanings and her classical base. “I played the piano all my life. And then I stopped,” she confesses, a veiled reference to her Y Kant Tori Read misstep. What this show captures, then, is a performer reconnecting with the instrument and the kind of art they had been encouraged to reject. Small wonder that she chooses to open the show with the most appropriate song possible: ‘Silent All These Years’.
Many of Amos’s greatest moments happen in a live setting, the arena in which she’s been able to achieve perhaps the purest expression of her complex art. There are many such indelible moments here: the abrupt segue from ‘Silent All These Years’ to ‘Precious Things’; the shocking ad-lib in the middle of ‘China’ (the eagle-eared will also note how the word “holiday” is replaced by “vacation” in this early rendering of the song); the charming little fuck up in the first verse of ‘Happy Phantom’ (“I forgot my own words, can you believe it?”); the emotive ‘Upside Down’; the brief anecdotal insight into her early corporate wars that precedes ‘Leather’; the stunning performance of ‘Winter’ (“This is my last song. It’s for my Dad”); and, finally, the truly touching surprise that Amos registers at the unanticipated request for an encore, a demand she more than dutifully fulfils with a beautiful, sultry cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Thank You’ (“I used to make out to this…”). Tough and tender, fierce and fragile, playful and passionate, the short set gives full expression to Amos’s quicksilver character. Bet those Moody Blues fans didn’t know what hit ‘em.
Still, it’s a somewhat more polished, assured (and freshly Karen Binns-styled) Amos who strides out onto the Montreux stage a year later, clearly buoyed by the positive response to her work, and confident enough to deliver a lovely dressing down to some chattering audience members just moments into her opening song (“So did you guys come here to talk or to listen to music?”). Amos has graduated to a Steinway now, the richer, more resonant tone of the instrument doing greater justice to the full range, vigour and nuance of her playing, which is looser, jazzier and funkier here. Although, on paper, the set is not substantially different to that of the 1991 show, there are changes both significant and subtle. ‘Precious Things’ is more theatrical and less resolved than before, Amos risking a sublimely snarled “girrrrl” in the bridge, ‘Crucify’ is more defiant and cathartic, ‘Winter’ more wistful, and her audience banter more cutting. Meanwhile, the fey ‘Song For Eric’ gets replaced by the altogether more visceral ‘Me & A Gun’ as the a cappella moment, ‘Thank You’ is supplemented by a lovely Zep anecdote and a great ‘Whole Lotta Love’, while a taut ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ provides the encore.
The raw, stark nature of these performances may seem a million miles away from the heightened theatricality, complex play with image and persona, and Viktor & Rolf-inspired haute glamour of Amos’s most recent tour. And yet the idiosyncrasy, drive and dynamism remain unchanged, sustained through the composition of a few hundred songs and the completion of more than 1000 live performances. As such, the American Doll Posse characters feel like ghosts behind the girl that we see here, unadorned, bravely sharing her stories, bringing these songs out into the world and, in doing so, giving many the inspiration to take their lives into their own hands for the first time. The palpable sense of reconnection with her past, and knowing just how far she’s travelled since, makes this DVD a fascinating, compelling and surprisingly moving experience.
[Eagle Rock Entertainment; September 22, 2008]
Tagged tori amos