Tori Amos, Vienna Radiokulturhaus, 6 May 2009

Now here’s a throwback to a past time. Tori Amos was someone I used to see a lot when I lived in London in the early 90s; I remember one particularly spellbinding evening at the Shaw Theatre on Euston Road, and another at some posh West End theatre or other when she was supported by the Divine Comedy, whom I was seeing for the first time (another artist I loved in the 90s who has sadly lost their way). Little Earthquakes was a devastating début, and Under The Pink even better for being both richer and stranger than its predecessor. But that was it for me. Boys For Pele began a downward spiral into eccentricity and impenetrability, as Amos wilfully chose to leave behind the qualities of fragility and desolation that had pushed her first two records towards greatness; and I lost interest.

Around seventeen years, then, since I first made Tori Amos’s acquaintance, it was time to catch up with her again in Vienna. This was one of those promotional showcase events, a concert intended for future broadcast and not really open to the public, for which the audience is made up of competition winners, industry parasites and suchlike. When I found out it was happening, I made a few enquiries but drew a blank ticket-wise. It was a great pleasure, therefore, to turn up at the Radiokulturhaus, go straight in and claim one of the precious few empty seats; thanks very much, FM4. (Would such an act of simple generosity have occurred at a comparable event in London? I rather think not – without a ticket, I wouldn’t have been allowed within a half-mile radius of the theatre.)

What a lovely venue is the Radiokulturhaus. The acoustics for tonight’s concert were just perfect, pin-sharp and crystal clear. The set itself, however, was frustratingly brief at around 45 minutes. This seems to be the standard length for these showcase events, but I have no idea why; having secured the presence of a major artist in an intimate setting, it would seem daft to let them get away with playing for less than an hour. The length of the radio broadcast itself might be restricted, sure, but there’s no reason why the artist can’t carry on and give a longer show than is actually broadcast.

As for the performance, it pretty much confirmed why Amos and I had parted company. The solo piano configuration was, of course, the perfect setting, temporarily banishing my memories of seeing Amos sing “Cornflake Girl” with a lumpen backing group and sickening quantities of flashing and swivelling lights. But the songs I was unfamiliar with – which understandably formed the backbone of the set – traded starkness and limpidity for recondite lyrics and tentative, not-quite-there melodies. A brief flash of autobiographical recollection led into a reading of the old standard “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, which was ravishing but not exactly acute.

Only the last two songs provided glimpses of Amos at her mesmerising best. “Silent All These Years” was as painfully self-aware as ever, its tumbling melody framed by the luminous beauty of her voice. And “1000 Oceans”, a new song to me, held me rapt with its haunted imagery of flight and homecoming – an intense and magical valediction.

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