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By Mark Clark
Calling a Tori Amos concert enthralling is almost redundant.
Fans enter the singer's performances expecting to be spellbound by her vocal theatrics. Amos didn't disappoint with her appearance July 17 at Macauley Theatre.
Compared to her last Louisville appearance -- a no-frills show at Phoenix Hill Tavern two years ago -- Amos' show this time around was a high-glitz affair. She performed at a black baby grand beneath swirling, fanning waves of laser lights, on a stage strewn with talismanic stuffed animals. At times, she was accompanied by tape loops featuring prerecorded bass, drums and guitars.
But none of those flourishes distracted from the mesmerizing power of Amos' quirky, emotive vocals. The sellout crowd sat for most of Amos' 105-minute set in rapt silence, hanging on her every lilt, shout and whisper.
She opened the show with a moving tribute to late Nirvana auteur Kurt Cobain -- a snippet of Don McLean's "American Pie" which melted into "Smells Like Teen Spirit." When Amos played "Teen Spirit" two years ago, it seemed like a gag. But since Cobain's death, an impenetrable soberness has settled over Amos' ballad-like reading of the song.
With applause still cascading in from that opening, Amos next launched into an impassioned rendition of her breakthrough single, "Crucify," from her debut album, Little Earthquakes. It was a powerful 1-2 opening punch, and the show only improved from there.
Other highlights included a stark, a cappella version of her semi-autobiographical song about rape, "Me and a Gun." She also offered heart-rending versions of "Silent All These Years" and "China," and an effective cover of the Rolling Stones' "Angie."
As always, her songs were delivered kneeling, crouching and gyrating across, but never quite sitting on, her piano bench. Amos' delivery looks like what would happen if somebody forced Joe Cocker to perform seated at a keyboard.
The pre-recorded tape loops backed Amos during "God" and "Cornflake Girl," both from her latest release, Under the Pink. The thump of the songs' basslines and the kaleidoscope of lights combined to briefly transform Macauley into a high-rent discotheque.
That was fun, but it would have been more interesting to hear piano-and-voice renditions of those songs. Maybe she was afraid some of the newer fans in the crowd wouldn't recognize "God," a recent hit, without the distorted guitar motifs from the radio version.
During her last visit, Amos regaled the crowd with several stories from her childhood as a ne'er-do-well preacher's daughter. She was less chatty this time around, speaking at any length only twice, but she proved as down-to-earth and witty as ever when she did speak.
Bill Miller, who grew up on an Indian reservation in Wisconsin, opened the evening with a 35-minute selection of folk songs rife with native American angst, softened by a disarming sense of humor. As a boy, he told the crowd, "We used to play cowboys and Indians and I was always an Indian -- and we always won." Miller is an impressive guitarist and a passable singer/songwriter.