Sitting in my (metaphorical) pile of music to blog about are a couple of “from the archives” releases of early live performances by musicians that went on to become quite famous, that I’ve picked up within the last 18 months. Notably the Joe Jackson BBC recordings, and the recording of David Bowie in Santa Monica are both very good. Just last week, however, I picked up the recent release of a 1991 Tori Amos concert which is remarkable as a performance and makes me re-assess her early work. Listening to them, it is completely unsurprising that she went on to become a star.
The recording covers many of the songs from her debut album and took place seven months before the release of that album. So the material was all new to the audience, and it was her first experience performing it in front of a large crowd. The performances have, as the cliche goes, the energy of somebody who has now expectations and nothing to lose. As she writes in the liner notes, “At the ’91 show, I though, well, I’m nowhere anyway. So let’s go out and give it my best show and if it doesn’t work, well I’m still nowhere when I leave.” Hearing them makes me more impressed with her songwriting, and her investment, both creatively and emotionally in the songs.
The first thing that stands out is that she doesn’t pull an punches. Her piano playing is loud and aggressive, her singing is uninhibited. That, by itself, is no small thing. It’s one thing to write songs based on intense personal drama, it’s another to perform them without hesitation or embarrassment, and still something else to be ready to perform those songs and take over a room of 2,000 people. The second thing that’s clear is that she worked on those songs for a while and that it’s strong material. As I said I think the Glen Campbell thread you can tell the difference between a strong performance which reveals limitations in the material and one in which the song proves itself to be solid enough to support that energy or emotion without strain.
Start with “Precious Things.” The piano playing is physical and forceful, and when she gets to the line, “He said, ‘You’re really an ugly girl / but I like the way that you play”” or “I want to smash the faces of those beautiful boys” there is genuine touch of (emotional) violence.
I also find the chorus to be effective in this version of the song.
These precious things / Let them bleed /Let them wash away
These precious things let them break their hold over me
I don’t have a sense of a literal meaning but, I think of the passage from Yeats that Ferron uses as an epigraph for Shadows On A Dime in which he describes the In A Vision, Yeats describes a state between the death and rebirth of each soul, when the spirit engages in a process of “In the Dreaming Back the Spirit is compelled to live over and over again the events that had most moved it; there can be nothing new, but the old events stand forth in a light which is dim or bright according to the intensity of the passion that accompanied them. They occur in the order of the intensity of the passion that accompanied them . . . the most intense first, and the painful are commonly the most intense, and repeat themselves again and again. . . .”
It evokes someone working though intense emotions to drain from them their overwhelming power and control over the memory.
Or consider, “Leather.” I don’t think it’s as strong a song, and I think that it does have some weaknesses revealed in that performance, but it’s still an admirably nervy performance. Start with the introduction in which she says that she was told, “if you perform that song you’ll have no career” and remember that this is months before her album would be released. She can’t know at that point that things will, in fact, work out remarkably well, she just has to commit what she’s doing. Her performance doesn’t hide or sugarcoat the emotionally ugliness of the situation described in the song.
Also, it does put a different emphasis on the opening lines, “Look I’m standing naked before you / Don’t you want more then my sex” when it’s being performed live and she is standing there on stage singing that. That’s not a neutral opening. That said, the performance makes me think that lines like, “I could just pretend that you love me / The night would lose all sense of fear / But why do I need you to love me . . .” feel like cliches. No matter how much someone may mean that when they write or perform those lines, it isn’t the sort of verse that any singer can own. It’s too generic a sentiment (contrast with the verses on “Precious Things”).
Finally, it’s interesting to compare both of those songs to the album versions (“Precious Things“, “Leather“). I like the live performance better, but I think the album version have power in a different way. The live versions are more forceful, but the album versions are, in a way, more intimate. They aren’t more revealing but, by dampening the emotional intensity, they’re easier to live with. You can listen to them repeatedly without them necessarily making an emotional demand on you as a listener. Beyond that, putting them into a different, more moderated, emotional register creates an effect that is very loosely, gossipy. There’s a feeling of, “can you believe that I’m telling you this” which is (very imprecisely) flirtatious. I feel like the album versions create a relationship in which the performance says to the listener, “you are somebody that I trust to share this with” whereas the live performance says, “here’s what I have to say; deal with it.”
I admire how much of a powerhouse she is in the live performance but the contrast between that and the live versions also makes me think that her success was well earned. In both cases I feel like the performance is crafted to take full advantage of the occasion, and those two occasions are different. That’s also why I say the live performance makes me reassess the album — it’s different to hear it as making very conscious choices about presentation and know that she is capable of bringing far more energy to those songs.