Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tori Amos concert review : Toronto : Sony Centre for the Performing Arts : October 23, 2007

With significant anticipation, I went to my 2nd Tori Amos concert last night. I had been keeping an eye out for onsale dates for these tickets because, more than anything else, I was interested to see whether she'd be playing at somewhere other than the Air Canada Centre (ACC) when she came to Toronto on her latest tour in support of her new album. The last time I saw her, it was at the ACC in 2003 in support of her Scarlet's Walk album, and I didn't enjoy it so much. At the last show, the crowd was very energetic (it was one of those concerts where you could feel the energy from the crowd -- a tangible energy brushed by you when Tori first appeared on stage), but the acoustics were just so terrible that I could barely hear the piano at all; and when I could, it sounded far too chorus-y and just not to my liking. So, I was happy to find that, this time, she was playing at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts; formerly known as the Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts; formerly know as the O'Keefe Centre. Since I knew the acoustics would be at least decent at the Sony Centre, I went ahead and got the tickets. I don't need much of a reason to go and see Tori.

Because of my prior experience, a lot of what I saw this time around was in comparison to what I'd seen the first time. In nearly all respects, it was a better show. So, my little review will be, at least partly, a comparison of the two.

Opening act: Yoav
The show was opened by a pleasing South African guy named Yoav, who doesn't yet have an album out yet but said that he had one planned for early 2008. He also mentioned that he had some EPs made, but that they were confiscated at the border. Don't these border guys have anything better to do than to take a bunch of demo tapes off a struggling artist?

Yoav's concept was to use the electric acoustic guitar for everything -- percussion, rhythm, and melody. He was essentially a one-man band with the aid of technology: he had some looping equipment hooked up to a pedal that allowed him to play one part, loop it, and then play on top of it, and so on.

Interestingly, a very similar, though not as advanced, concept was used by Howie Day when he opened for Tori Amos the last time I saw her. At that time, the audience didn't really "get it" and a lot of people seemed to think he was lip synching because they didn't catch onto what he was doing with the electronics and pedals. Howie Day, though, didn't follow through and use this concept on his albums, which were quite bland. It seems that Yoav is this concept, and we can expect to see this style on his album when it's released. This is a good thing!

Yoav was far more creative than what I saw from Howie Day, although I have to admit that the effects he used are not that advanced. Multi-tap delays, which is what he used here, are a very easy way to get a catchy tune going, and they're not very challenging to employ. If I had to describe his sound, I'd say it was a combination of Cary Brothers (because of the use of multi-tap with guitars), Sigur Ros (eery background vocals), and dance/techno influence from people like Pet Shop Boys (he created some impressive pseudo-arpeggios with the guitar and multi-tap). I'm not sure how much guitar-playing talent was displayed here. There wasn't much. The electronics did a lot of the work, although it's an impressive concept. It sounded great, regardless.

So, on to the main event...

Concept: American Doll Posse
Tori's latest album, American Doll Posse, is another concept album. The concept consists of five "dolls" -- Santa, Clyde, Isabel, Pip, and... Tori, each one with quite a different personality and based on five Greek goddesses that express various facets of feminine character. Each of the "dolls" come out on the album because each of the 23 (!) songs is sung by one of the dolls and is reflective of the particular facet that that doll represents. The associated concept for the concert was that one of the dolls other than Tori would appear first and play a few songs, and Tori would then finish the rest of the concert.

Pip opens the show... :(
Sadly, for me, Toronto's concert was led in by the doll Pip -- a confrontational "warrior woman" based on the Greek goddess of war, wisdom, and strategy; and also one of the more raunchy dolls. Swearing and strange grinding against the piano bench were part of this set. In fact, the piano bench was used like a dancer's pole for much of the set. I felt embarassed to watch it, honestly, and I was glad it didn't last very long. The music, too, was very loud and overdriven and I don't think I heard a single piano note throughout the whole thing, despite the fact that Pip was very clearly playing the piano throughout.

Pip left the stage with a spastic half-seizure moment, a torrent of foul language and a middle-finger salute. Good riddance. I guess this is why you want these alternate personalities to be integrated, and on that we can agree.

Audience: more laid back than before
The audience was quite subdued until the two encores. Not many people around me were that overtly "into it", although I'm not that type, either, and I was very much into it. So, I shouldn't judge. But it was far more laid back than the ACC concert. Perhaps it was the venue -- a rather nice, carpeted concert hall. I did "sleep" through a few songs that were just too dramatic or acoustically unkind that I just shut down for a bit.

I know many people don't see what this next part has to do with anything, but I can't help noticing these things and this is my blog, so... I noticed with interest that the make up of the audience fit roughly into these categories, in rough order of frequency:

  • gay and lesbian couples: I had no idea that Tori's audience was so heavily slanted in this direction, but it so clearly was.

  • gay men with a female friend: this one may have been more common than the gay couples. Not sure.

  • single, straight guys that looked like they'd have been beat up in high school on suspicion of being gay: just a thought...

  • straight couples attending on mutual agreement: about which I had internal dialogue: "represent!"

  • nonchalant guys that their significant others forced to come along: these guys had a permanent frown as if they were worried about the hockey scores and lack of permissible alcohol and looked generally discontent to be there

  • aging hipster: middle-aged guys with their middle-aged wives. The types of people that you expect to see en-masse at reunion concerts.

  • straight, single women

  • me: tongue in cheek. I hope you realize that I'm just being silly with this analysis. It is not mean-spirited.

My personal experience was that I was sitting with a lesbian couple on my left, a gay man with his female friend on my right. A gay man with a female friend behind me, and a gay male couple in front of me. At my North-Northeast, there was an adorable, plain-looking girl by herself. Plain-looking girls are the best, and I've always had an affinity for them.

Tori comes on stage
Tori was greeted very warmly by the crowd, and was her usual public self: quite playful, yet professional.

With the band: guy #3 didn't do anything for me
Most of the songs were played with the band, and the acoustics were hit-and-miss. The usual suspects were present: Jon Evans on bass, and Matt Chamberlain on drums. There was a third guy on guitar who, really, didn't add very much to the appeal from my perspective, although his contribution was evident. The band didn't seem particularly tight or have any real chemistry, although Matt Chamberlain did an excellent job drumming, as always.

Acoustics: an improvement!
The piano was frequently overpowered by the bass guitar and drums from where I was sitting. The only notes that really cut through the mix were the bass notes, of which Tori is masterful. The other notes peeked through the mix once in awhile and, like the adorable smile of the girl with the pretty smile that doesn't smile very much, they were much appreciated when they made an appearance.

During the solo set, the acoustics were great, the piano sounded very good, and as good as you could ask for with a concert configuration like the one they had.

The songs: nearly all good. Something old; something new.
The only songs that I really, really look forward to hearing live are: "Precious Things", "Gold Dust" (which hardly ever gets played), "Butterfly", and "Take To The Sky". Precious Things was the only one played -- and well-played it was, although it was missing the grand crescendo -- but there was a very good substitute that I don't think I'd ever heard before, called "Take Me With You", played during the solo set.

"Winter" was played. It's a very emotional piece, and a very selfish fan in the peanut gallery interrupted the quiet height of the song with an overbearing "I LOVE YOU TORI!", to which someone in Orchestra joined in. Tori dealt with them appropriately, but as an artist I can only imagine the disappointment that comes when your supposed fans interrupt a moment like that.

Most of the songs were great once Pip was off the stage. I really, really didn't "get" or appreciate the Pip segment.

The improv: a shot at Madonna
A rather funny improvised segment had Tori singing a song about book-shopping at Chapters with her young daughter, who at the end of the song concluded that, although her Mom had concerns about her book selection being beyond her age range, that the daughter was ultimately smarter because if Madonna was the one that wrote the book, she must be able to read it. When you compare the depth of the two artists, this was a very appropriate jab.

The solo segment: T & Bö
Bö being a reference to the Bösendorfer piano that she seems to take everywhere. As mentioned, this was a great segment in the middle of the two band-driven segments, and was a chance to see Tori "unplugged" which, in my opinion, is when she's always at her best. There's more freedom to wander because of the lack of interdependence with the band, and she always makes good use of the opportunity.

Tori plays a Bösendorfer piano. I think it's a Model 290 Imperial Grand, which has an extra 9 bass notes (97 keys) beyond what most pianos have.

In conclusion
A great concert! With the amount of energy in her shows, I'm amazed that she can put out what must have been at least a 2 hour concert, including two encores, with no intermission.

Good & Bad

The good

  • much better, acoustically, than at Air Canada Centre. Particularly during the solo segment.

  • few songs that I disliked

  • I heard a new song that I really liked

  • great improv

  • very interesting opening act

  • Plain girl, NNE

  • did not feel like bad value, and this was significantly more expensive than at ACC. ACC did feel like bad value.

The bad

  • Pip: I didn't get it

  • the two inconsiderate fans that put a damper on "Winter"

  • acoustics could still be better during the band segments. I think most people go to hear the piano first and foremost, not the bass guitar!

Overall, a great night out. I would definitely go again if she comes back to a non-ACC venue!

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Bread machine trials and tribulations

So, I finally got myself a bread machine.

Like most things electronic, this market has been somewhat cheapened to the degree that you can get bread machines for well under $100. I assume you get what you pay for, but not necessarily in direct proportion to what you pay (i.e. although I believe that a $200 machine will be better than a $100 machine, I don't necessarily believe it'll be twice as good). But, I generally don't have confidence in things that are too cheap: I tend to feel, however stupid, that if I haven't paid enough for it then I don't have much of a right to complain when it breaks down 1 day after the warranty period expires and I also don't like to support a throwaway society that encourages planned obsolescence. I'd rather buy something once and have it work for a long time. Not only that, but I don't like returning things to the store (I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've returned something to the store for reasons other than defect), and I hate dealing with customer support telephone service. So, I like to get it right the first time.

Anyway, back to the story.

So, I ended up getting a Zojirushi Home Bakery Mini Breadmaker (BB-HAC10). They have a larger one that I found really interesting-looking because you could actually modify the lengths of some of the preparation phases and it also made traditional horizontal loaves but, sadly, it only makes 1.5 and 2.0 pound loaves because of the horizontal pan, which is too much for a single guy like me. So, I went with the smaller machine, which does the typical weird-shaped bread machine loaves but seems very solid and compact -- much more compact than most bread machines I've seen. About $250 from Golda's Kitchen in Mississauga (conveniently located on my drive-home-from-work route -- they have seen me many times). Relatively expensive, but... highly-regarded in this category and, well, you know: as above.

I was hesitant to get a bread machine because I've been doing bread by hand for awhile and really enjoy the process. It's quite humbling to be forced to wait through the whole process while the yeast does its job on rising the dough. You attend to it, but it in its warm place, and go back to what you were doing, remembering to come back in another hour or so and tend to it again. It's a natural process. It's exercising for your arms during the kneading phase when you're beating it up to get maximum penetration of the ingredients. It's so satisfying to see the finished product after about 4 hours of waiting: it's amazing to create something so great out of so few ingredients. The result comes from work and attention and knowledge, not from technical or chemical wizardry. There aren't many things that are that basic anymore.

So, I like making bread by hand.

And, by getting a bread machine, I was worried that it might come to an end. Although I'd undoubtedly make more bread with a machine, I was worried that I'd stop doing it by hand altogether because the motivation would be gone. I was worried that maybe the bread machine would be "good enough" -- I knew it wouldn't be as good because it just can't be. But, sometimes things are good enough and you just let them go.

But, in the end, I'd just had enough of supermarket bread. It's pretty devious stuff, and I had started to fall back into the habit of buying it again because I didn't have enough time to go through the whole breadmaking palaver each and every weekend. And, with the cold weather approaching, it's a bit harder to rise the dough because I don't keep my house very warm, and you need a warm place to get the yeast going and doing the best it can.

So, I got the bread machine.

I already feel a bit disappointed, having just loaded the first ingredients into the machine and started it on its way a few hours ago. What have I really done here? Not much. The machine is doing it all. I added the ingredients and pressed "Start". And it'll probably do an OK job and I'll feel that yet another one of my fun skills has been replaced by a machine that will be "good enough" for most people.


It reminds me of that old Betty Crocker story from Don Norman's book, Emotional Design. When Betty Crocker first introduced the packaged cake mix ("just add water"), people were really happy with the resulting cake, but the product did not sell very well after the introductory period. Upon further investigation, the company found out that the people buying the cake mix did not feel much accomplishment in having baked a cake from a package because all they had to do was add water. They didn't feel like they'd really done anything. So, what did they do? They required people to also add an egg to the mixture before baking. The product instantly became much more popular because the people using it felt as though they were actually baking something to which they'd added some kind of personal touch. I'm not saying that this is exactly the same as here because, with breadmaking, you are genuinely doing a lot of work. But, making bread with a bread machine just feels... far too easy. You once were useful, and now you're not.

Anyway, I just took the first loaf out of the "oven" and it's not bad-looking. It's soft, puffy, and has a nice colour. We'll see what it's like when it's cooled down. It doesn't have a proper oven crust, of course, because it wasn't cooked in a real oven, on a real baking stone, with real steam.

I can get so sentimental about bread sometimes.

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