Tori Amos, Rufus Wainwright
Arie Crown Theatre, Chicago
Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Tori Amos The Chicago stop of Tori Amos' "Strange Little Tour" lived up to its name. This was by far the most strangely eclectic set list Amos has performed for a Chicago crowd in her career.

The Arie Crown Theatre was primed and well-stocked on estrogen, earrings, and hair dye for the always evocative singer-songwriter, who has turned her piano theatrics and introspective lyrics into memorable radio anthems like "Precious Things," "God," "Caught A Lite Sneeze," "Bliss," "Spark" and "Cornflake Girl," among others.

But on Tuesday, Tori played none of those tracks. Nor did she play much from her new album Strange Little Girls.

For diehard fans, Amos' moody set was no doubt a revelation — like the sharing of a secret language between close friends. For those who came to hear the new album's material, along with some of their favorite staple "hits," they went home scratching their heads. More than a handful of the 20 full songs Amos crammed into her 100-minute performance were B-sides from some of the above hit singles — songs like "Flying Dutchman," from the flipside of "Precious Things," "Sister Janet," an extra track on the "Cornflake Girl" single, and "Spark"'s B-side, the French-bordello-rhythmed "Bachelorette" (which sounded more evocative live than its studio counterpart). She completely omitted any regular studio LP tracks from the recent To Venus And Back and From The Choirgirl Hotel CDs, focusing instead on her first three albums. Gone also were most of her legendary piano bench-humping histrionics.

In a sense, Amos seemed to go back to her roots on this tour, appearing for the first time in years without a backing band and focusing on her older catalogue. But she also seemed less energized and engaging than past tours. She barely spoke to the audience, and started the show by playing an entire song without ever appearing on stage. The set opened with a photo of one of the "characters" from her new album hanging in front of a shredded curtain. Amos sung (or was it recorded?) her entire cover of Eminem's chilling "97 Bonnie and Clyde" from backstage. When the curtain dropped at the end of the song, Amos strode on stage and took her spot at the black grand piano to run-through Joe Jackson's emotionally challenging "Real Men." After these two songs, however, Amos only dipped into her new album once more (for "Rattlesnakes"), omitting the single "Strange Little Girls," and never taking any time to talk about her concept for the disc (that of women's characters singing "men's" songs).

The one time she did talk during the first half of the show brought out an audience suggestion that she appear as the "Devil In The Blue Dress" for Halloween and yielded a short, hysterical improv song on that topic.

But that was one of the only moments of engaging patter or humor in the show. From that track she slipped into Little Earthquakes' sadly moving "Silent All These Years," followed by the Earthquakes B-side "Flying Dutchman" and then the esoteric Boys For Pele track "Not The Red Baron." She also mined Boys for the yawn-inducing "Doughnut Song" and staple "Hey Jupiter," the latter of which found her perched between the grand piano and an electric piano with one hand on each keyboard — playing both at the same time, a trick she also performed for "Rattlesnakes."

Towards the end of the main set, she went from singing a little known B-side "Here In My Head" to the stark, a capella rape-recounting song "Me And A Gun," from Little Earthquakes. The transition was jarring and rushed, so that it took a few bars for the mood to switch properly and the always-riveting song's impact to take hold. But, as "Me And A Gun" went on with its unflinching look at violation from a woman's there-right-now perspective, Amos' voice got increasingly breathy and raw, heightening the intensity of the chorus where the victim keeps her focus through the violence by thinking (singing), "I haven't seen Barbados, so I must get out of this."

She closed the set with a cover of a Burt Bacharach song, "Windows Of The World," which proved more affecting than much of the cover material that ended up being included on Strange Little Girls. This moving cover should have made the CD.

Amos seemed rushed to get through the encores — returning to the stage twice after barely being out of sight for a second. Here she turned in solid readings of "Pretty Good Year," "Tear In Your Hand," and one of her most beautiful ballads, "Baker Baker," along with a couple more B-sides.

Overall it was a downbeat show. Frankly, Amos has much stronger A- and B-side material in her catalogue than half of what she presented on Tuesday. While the piano presentation and some of the songs may have been the same, this was not the same Tori I saw 10 years ago. All I could think upon filing out of the Arie Crown was "Bring back the band."

Rufus Wainwright opened the show, and proved to be a most entertaining one-man band, alternating between guitar and piano for his lyrical, melodic work. His beautifully soaring songwriting, offhanded manner and self-deprecating jokes instantly captured the audience. He complained at one point of being "too full of beer" to sing something correctly and a member of the audience yelled "you rock." Rufus agreed, nodding, "I'm full of beer, but I rock."

Actually, Wainwright swayed more than rocked, but his rich, flowing vocals were perfectly suited to the naked accompaniment of simple piano chords and guitar strums. He left the audience thirsting for more.