Amos Covers the Bases
Tori Amos is searching for new standards, a shared song list for endless reinterpretation. She’s had great success as a songwriter, making music both confessional and confrontational while wrapped in the guise of piano balladeer. But she’s also turned to outside material, as far back as a 1992 cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Amos not only recast that rock landmark with a strange new clarity, but also brought definition to her role as tender provocateur.
She sought similar inspiration for her newest album, “Strange Little Girls,” a collection that reinterprets cover songs about women by male writers as varied as Tom Waits and Eminem. Amos brought that same mission to the Wiltern Theatre on Thursday. In the first of three shows there, she performed solo, typically astride her piano bench in a posture as confrontational as Jerry Lee Lewis.
Her breathless vocals and spare piano gave organic weight to Depeche Mode’s brooding “Enjoy the Silence.” There was also a chilling take on the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays,” as if tapping directly into the song’s original inspiration: a grade-school shooting from two decades ago.
She would close the night nearly two hours later with a wistful version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” her soft falsetto interrupted with sudden groans and biting turns of phrase, expressing as much real angst as a punk band.
Amos was an attentive host but said little beyond noting that she had become a mother since her last tour. The singer-songwriter also performed many of her own songs on Thursday, though few of the obvious radio hits.
During the ‘90s Amos established herself as a real pop eccentric, finding her own private corner of the music world while still consistently selling millions of albums.
Her intensity can be excruciating to some ears, but at her best Amos melds musical grace with an alarming bluntness. On Thursday she sat staring into her audience for the haunted and fragile a cappella “Me and a Gun,” her notorious recounting of a rape.
The solo piano might have been better served by a tighter set, eliminating an inevitable sameness of material. But like support act Rufus Wainwright, who performed his emotional ballads alone, Amos found power in simplicity.
She also turned frequently to songs from 1991’s “Little Earthquakes,” her first album as a solo artist. It was as if Amos needed to prove that she had created some worthwhile standards of her own.
Tori Amos and Rufus Wainwright play tonight at the Wiltern Theatre, 3970 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Sold out. (213) 390-5005.