In the elevator coming down from the beautiful Theater at MGM National Harbor, just after Tori Amos finished her set, I overheard a conversation that probably plays out numerous times after just about every one of the acclaimed musician’s shows. Two young ladies were speaking, one said incredulously,” I can’t believe she didn’t play ‘Silent All These Years!’” “Yeah,” her friend replied, “How do you not play ‘Silent All These Years’ and ‘Cornflake Girl?’”
Because, as anybody who has been fortunate enough to see Tori Amos perform live understands, she doesn’t just get up there and do a run-through of her biggest hits. Oh sure, “Silent All These Years” appears from time to time (she played it the next night in Philadelphia, in fact), but only as often as many of her deep album tracks or b-sides. The set lists change dramatically from night to night and the one she put together for the Washington area could not have been more perfect. It was her debut at the relatively new MGM National Harbor. For about the last decade, her D.C. tour stops have been at DAR Constitution Hall.
Her latest album, “Native Invader,” grapples with dual fractures — the political upheaval that is broiling our nation and the massive stroke that Tori Amos’ mother suffered earlier in the year, which has impaired her ability to speak. The album connects the universal and the personal. It’s somber and beautiful, restrained and poetic and perhaps not as immediately engaging as many of her albums. That said, Amos was anything but restrained on Friday night when she performed for her ardent D.C.-area fans. She didn’t lecture, but the fission and turmoil infusing our world was a fiery thread through the set that was impossible to miss.
Amos opened with “iieee,” and its lines couldn’t be more appropriate: “I know we’re dying and there’s no time for a parachute… /can’t we get a little grace and some elegance/no we scream in cathedrals/why can’t it be beautiful? Why does there gotta be a sacrifice?” From that searing opening, she rolled through 90 minutes spanning her entire catalog, as fiery and passionate as ever as she enters her third decade in the music business.
She opened her powerful allegory “Amber Waves,” which portrays America as a woman used and abused but not without hope, with a chilling reimagining of “America the Beautiful,” which became a hymn of mourning for the current state of the nation. Amos rampaged through a torrid performance of the “Under the Pink” classic “Yes, Anastasia,” slamming the piano lid for emphasis at its conclusion and saying, after a few moments of thunderous applause, “A girl gotta bring it for her hometown show.” The suburban Maryland native brought it indeed.
During her “Fake Muse Network” section, complete with a graphic on screen behind her mocking Fox News, she delivered stunning renditions of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Joni Mitchell’s wistful “A Case of You.” As with most of the show, a pin could have dropped and raised a clamor, such was the level of rapt attention the audience paid to her performance.
That led to a breaktaking performance of “Reindeer King,” the majesty centerpiece of her new album. The theme of the night seemed to be the need to let our native invaders rise, as she focused on songs brimming with anger like the searing “Blood Roses” and the solemn and heartbreaking “Marianne.” She was in fine voice throughout and watching her shift back and forth from organ to piano and sometimes play them simultaneously is always fascinating. As a songwriter, musician and performer, Amos remains as compelling as when she launched her career with the now-classic “Little Earthquakes” in 1992.
The show featured tour debuts. “Girl,” on which she warned she might have to start over if she screwed up and then, not surprisingly, she absolutely nailed it, and an energetic take on her late ‘90s classic “Raspberry Swirl,” which paired with her epic “Precious Things” as a powerhouse finale that left the audience wanting more.
Yeah, her sets these days are a little bit shorter than on past tours, but Tori Amos still gives her all on stage every night and her delight at the fans’ response and their obviously genuine love for her is moving to behold. There is nobody quite like Tori Amos in popular music, and if you’re one of those lamenting the fact that she didn’t play her two most recognizable hits, then perhaps the solution is to dive deeper into her catalog.
Tori Amos isn’t about hits; she’s about the power of music both as a catharsis and an agent of healing. She’s played in the D.C. area many times in her career and it’s always a special experience. Her appearance last Friday at the MGM National Harbor was no exception.