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San Francisco Chronicle (US)
Sunday, December 15, 2002
Amos treks the U.S.
Songwriter searches for country's soul in 'Walk'
Dan Ouellette, Special to The Chronicle
New York -- Halfway through her concert at Riverside Church in New York last month, Tori Amos concluded her bright, tempo-shifting tune "Wednesday" with the sober line, "I think that I'm lost here, lost in a place called America."
The quest for self-discovery amid the country's vast landscape is a familiar theme in American literature, from Beat writer Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" odyssey to pop songsmith Paul Simon's "America" snapshot. But Amos' search for the soul of the land on her new CD, "Scarlet's Walk," takes on a more salient resonance given the event that spawned it: the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We were in New York doing telly before our tour," says the singer- songwriter-pianist, who brings her latest concert featuring "Scarlet's Walk" tunes to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium this Friday and Saturday. She performs in a trio with longtime collaborators Jon Evans on bass and Matt Chamberlain on drums. "The World Trade Center towers fell while we were there. We thought about canceling the tour, but we heard from people across the States that they were feeling paralyzed and needed to congregate. I had the seeds for new songs at the time, but Scarlet weaved her tale to me as I traveled through America."
"Scarlet's Walk" is a lyrical 74-minute novella about a protagonist who seeks personal clarity while crisscrossing a country wrought by a poverty of spirit. The album opens with the gently grooved "Amber Waves," in which Scarlet, a porn star in Los Angeles, finds herself in an identity crisis -- not unlike the United States at large.
"Scarlet is in trouble, so she calls a woman friend who is able to look beyond what she does," says the 39-year-old Amos, sounding a little road-weary but amiable in a phone conversation from Detroit after arriving via tour bus for a show that night. "Scarlet has been pimped out by those around her, but now she has to face the consequences. She's got to look beyond. America is a character in this. She shows up in the women that Scarlet visits in the songs."
"Scarlet's Walk" is loosely based on Amos' personal life, informed by her American Indian ancestry (her mother's grandfather was a Cherokee) and infused with a political sensibility. It chronicles Scarlet's journey and relationships, including a trip up the Pacific Coast Highway with a lover (the catchy "A Sorta Fairytale"), an encounter with a Latino revolutionary (the funk-inflected "Sweet Sangria") and a hitchhiked ride with a life-affirming driver who takes her away from damaged New York (the lushly orchestrated "Mrs. Jesus").
Born in North Carolina, raised in Baltimore and living in England, Amos says the tenor of the time was crucial to the creation of the songs. "People were relating to each other with fewer layers. The masks were down. When you don't know if tomorrow will come, it takes less steps to relate than normal."
Traveling with her daughter, 13 months old at the time, Amos "took night duty" on the tour bus. "While we were rolling through the sleeping towns, I'd drink it all in. Then when we stopped, we talked to people who were asking questions, looking at their relationship to America. I think people saw her as wounded. Even with all that death, I think people realized for the first time that she was alive."
Amos also encountered many American Indians who talked about how the guardians of the land had forsaken their roles as caretakers and protectors, becoming takers and aggressors instead. "Then an older Native American lady came to us and said that some people will still refuse to crawl from their safe little world even though that world is no longer safe," Amos recalls. "It was at that moment of hearing her speak and being humbled that Scarlet's tale began.
"I saw a story demanding to be written. It's like the songlines in Australia. At a certain point, you're on a path that you don't really know, but you can't get off it even if you wanted. You hear the songs, the rhythms of the land, the cultures that lived there. I was pulled in. I started to piece the story together. It was like playing the game Clue with Miss Scarlet in the kitchen with the candlestick."
A collection of pop songs that are delicate and sweet as well as rocking and poignant, "Scarlet's Walk" is Amos' 11th CD. Described as Barbra Streisand-meets-Wendy O. Williams, she's won eight Grammy nominations in her 10-year career. She broke into the pop music scene in 1992 with the hit album "Little Earthquakes" (including the fiery tune "Crucify," which she performed in her New York show), followed by 1994's "Under the Pink," featuring the single "Cornflake Girl," also a live staple.
In concert, Amos is fully engaged, twirling in midtune from her Bosendorfer piano to electric keyboards. She writhes, bobs and pounces with an ecstatic Keith Jarrett-like physicality, alternately dangling her long, curly red hair in front of her face and flipping it back when she accelerates the tempo.
Amos' passionate and, at times, erotic songs range from strident piano- driven dramas to tender, light-on-the-keys confessional ballads. Influenced by both Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, she doesn't hesitate to probe atypical pop music subjects, including rape (she's the founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) and religious hypocrisy.
In her New York appearance, Amos, the daughter of a Methodist minister, greeted the sold-out audience in the cathedral nave: "It's lovely to be in church together." She smiled, then noted that her father was backstage before the show. "We were in the women's choir room, and he said, 'Looks like you've come full circle.'"
Amos laughs when recalling this. "Any time you put me in a church, I don't need a whole lot of prodding because there's so much material there for me." She says it was a privilege to perform at Riverside, a church known for its civil rights and anti-war activism. "There are few churches that uphold Jesus' teaching -- that live it and walk the walk. Even the pamphlets in the pews were raising questions about what's really going on in America, talking about things that you can't even read in a newspaper here."
Although Amos has a beach house in Florida, she's spent much of her time over the past decade in England. Does she think that her observations of America take on an Alexis de Tocqueville-like outsider's perspective? "In a sense, yes. I find that I'm able to get more information about our country in England than when I'm here.
"Unlike the media there, which asks critical questions about its own government, here there doesn't seem to be a forum for holding a leader's seat to the fire. That's disturbing. Today, if you have any criticism of America, you're told you don't love her. That's emotional blackmail."
Amos' impulse to critique is what makes her character's perceptions and struggles all the more compelling. "Scarlet is flesh and blood, and, of course, she bleeds," Amos says. "But she's trying to discover her relationship to the soul of America."
The singer performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove St., San Francisco. Tickets: $29.50-$39.50. Call: (510) 625 444-TIXS 8497, or go to www.ticketmaster.com
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