Ever since the onset of her solo career, Tori Amos has been revered — and, in some cynical circles, reviled — for the utter emotional nakedness of her work, the complete lack of separation between artist and art. As such, she showed an admirable adventurousness in all but completely abandoning that approach on her recent Epic offering “American Doll Posse,” a song cycle on which she plays a series of decidedly disparate characters, offering backstories and unique voices for each.
This perf, the first of two sold-out Gotham gigs, found her portraying a brace of those characters — she’s been alternating the choices from night to night — for the first part of the set, then allowing her inner self to emerge, a person markedly less damaged, but just as thorny as the one responsible for works like “Boys for Pele.”
Amos opened the gig in the guise of “Pip,” a streetwise, black-wigged guttersnipe who the artist has described as a source of negative energy — an ambience that emanated quite clearly from the bruised-but-unbroken delivery of “Cruel” and the lacerating, Brecht-gone-industrial “Teenage Hustling.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about Amos is the contrast between her physical delicacy and her sonic power — both as a vocalist and a keyboardist who could give Jerry Lee Lewis a run for his money in terms of her use of the instrument as everything from a punching bag to a perch for some mighty intriguing interpretive dance.
Mostly, though, she connected through the sheer strength of a repertoire that’s retained its nerve-wracking intensity and wintry beauty over many years and many hundreds of airings — particularly a seething version of “Silent All These Years” that exuded a curare-like quality, transfixing the listener while allowing every nuance of pain to be felt.
Earlier in her career, Amos concentrated on those dark tones to the exclusion of all else but made a point of daubing some spangles into the margins here — both in the form of a sweetly improvised ditty about her daughter and a breezy jazziness in her playing. For some artists, that change in attitude could portend the encroachment of a psychic middle-aged spread, but Amos made it seem far less worrisome, simply acknowledging that offering an audience a breather every once in a while makes it all the more striking when it comes time to take their breath away.
Amos plays the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles on Dec. 16.