Live Review: Tori Amos, Tow’rs, Red Bank, NJ, July 2, 2023

Well more than a year into her Ocean To Ocean Tour, Tori Amos is still taking risks and playing with her back catalog in fresh ways. Fourteen months after we caught back-to-back concerts in the D.C. area and Philadelphia, we were more than ready for more, so we drove up to Red Bank, N.J., for another stellar, moving performance by Amos, joined again by bassist Jon Evans and drummer Ash Soan, who’ve coalesced into an intuitive, jazz-inflected combo that knows when to extend an intro for several minutes of delicious sonic exploration and when to hold back for deliberate silence.

Of the 16 songs she rolled out at the Count Basie Center For The Arts, less than a third were repeats from the shows we saw last year: “Ocean To Ocean” (the title track of her most recent album and the tour’s namesake) and main-set-closer “Cornflake Girl,” the only two numbers that have appeared on more than 80 percent of the tour’s setlists; “Sweet Sangria,” which has been rolled out less than 30 percent of the time but at all three dates we attended; “A Sorta Fairytale,” promoted from the third song of the night in Maryland to the first in Red Bank; and “Take To The Sky,” relocated from near the end of the main set in Philadelphia to the last song of the encore in Red Bank.

While it seemed noteworthy last year that so little of the album being promoted had made the transition to the stage (representing three of the 17 songs played in Maryland, with one addition in Philadelphia), in Red Bank, that number had been reduced to just one. (That’s half the tally of the previous night’s stop in Boston, where “Ocean To Ocean” was joined by my favorite song from the record, “Metal Water Wood,” making its U.S. tour debut.)

In fact, you could be forgiven if you assumed that Amos was promoting her Record Store Day collection of Little Earthquakes b-sides, with a set that offered three songs drawn from that era (more about those later) but none from her landmark 1992 album itself, or the concept of non-album tracks in general, including one each from 1994’s Under The Pink sessions (the bewitching “Sister Janet,” one of Amos’ two solo numbers, which complemented two from that album) and 2004’s Scarlet’s Hidden Treasures EP (the wistful and mysterious “Ruby Through The Looking-Glass,” as a lagniappe to three from the epic Scarlet’s Walk).

At the heart of the show was an unlikely first: the one-two punch of “Ode To The Banana King” and “Pretty Good Year.” Though “Ode To The Banana King” first appeared in 1992 as a b-side to “Silent All These Years” in the U.K., according the exhaustive and addictive Tori Amos Setlist Database, this show marked only its seventh live airing. Understandably, much of the audience stood and hollered in awe as soon as they recognized those dark opening chords, then settled down to appreciate Amos’ powerful solo version, which immediately segued into Under The Pink’s “Pretty Good Year” (widely regarded as the sequel), with Evans and Soan making their dramatic musical entrance accompanied by appropriately dramatic lighting. Acknowledging that it wasn’t her idea, Amos nonetheless killed the inspired pairing with her passionate piano and voice, a reminder (as though we needed one) of why she deserves to be regarded as a legend in her own right and not merely an echo of a certain predecessor or a pastiche of her influences, as unimaginative detractors have claimed over the years.

Among her many talents, one that sets Amos apart is her ability to spot thematic threads and weave them together, rend them apart or recontextualize them to let the seams show. Beyond “Ode To The Banana King”/“Pretty Good Year,” delivering Boys For Pele’s opening salvo of “Beauty Queen”/“Horses” was a spellbinding example of the dynamic magic that happens when Amos follows her own train of thought and brings us along for the ride.

In its own way, supercharging American Doll Posse’s “Body And Soul” with interpolations of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” reveals extra facets. Although I’ve never really loved Amos’ admittedly selective use of the kind of prerecorded vocals that make the mash-up sound more premeditated than necessary, it served a purpose in the encore to bridge the spiritual sensuality of “Body And Soul” and the spectacular “Take To The Sky,” which has evolved mightily from its original form as a b-side to 1992’s “Winter.” By this point, the live arrangement’s embrace of Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move” seems like an inextricable part of Amos’ steely affirmation of faith in her musical calling and her ability to chart her own destiny, but at this particular moment, Amos illuminated still more connections with subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the lyrics. Closing the loop to emphasize the environmental concern that drives “Ocean To Ocean,” she changed King’s lusty chorus of “I feel the earth move under my feet/I feel the sky tumblin’ down” to “I feel my earth move under my feet/And she is waking me up/She’s shaking me up,” even as the audience was on its feet, moving to the irresistible rhythm. So too did she reframe her younger self’s challenge to the patriarchal figures blocking her creative path (“You can say it one more time, what you don’t like … Then have a seat while I take to the sky”) to explicitly refute Ron DeSantis’ hateful worldview and refuse to cede her American home base of Florida to bigots. Thumbing her nose at the Don’t Say Gay crowd, she chanted “gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay” and intoned “Florida loves Jesus/Jesus loves gays,” which elicited shouts of affection and sustained cheers that brought the evening to a rousing end.

Other highlights included “Fire To Your Plain,” one of the standouts from 2009’s Abnormally Attracted To Sin (played for just the eighth time, according to the Tori Amos Setlist Database), cryptic marital plaint “Lust” (from 1999’s To Venus and Back) and the beautifully baffled “Sugar” (the b-side to 1992’s “China” and Amos’ 24th most-played song).

Flagstaff, Ariz.-based Tow’rs opened with a genial set of songs about searching and growing.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich