Regina Spektor, very live at the Riverside
Spektor, the anti-folk singer, enriched her beautiful songs with charm, charisma and fresh takes Saturday at the Riverside.
Only a handful of pop artists have enough skill with and vocal control as to earn the title virtuoso. Regina Spektor is one, and she proved it over and over and over again at the Riverside Theater Saturday night.
Spektor, the darling of New York’s anti-folk scene, has performed and recorded since the turn of the millennium. Between her quirky, sometimes nonsensical lyrics, unorthodox approach to rhythm and pronunciation, and a voice that can dart from whispered trills to forceful belting and back in instants, she offers a sound like no one else in the market.
In person, Spektor’s broad vocal range gets filled in with details. Breathy melismata, which blur together on studio recordings of such songs as “Small Town Moon” or “Dance Anthem of the ‘80s,” become winding staircases of sound live. Her travels from note to note come laced with shades of emotion visible in her face. Watching her also reminds you she’s equally virtuosic on the ivories; she performed much of the concert under a constant spotlight (a clever touch) at a grand piano.
The concert was largely built around her latest album, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, a collection of songs new and old that had either never been recorded or given new, professional studio versions. Frankly, Cheap Seats had disappointed me a bit, although to call any Spektor record a disappointment is perhaps the oxymoron of the century.
It didn’t take long for Spektor to change my mind. Cheap Seat material, which filled about half the concert, sounded better than I remembered. She enriched them, selling me on her uptempo, bouncy version of “Don’t Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas),” nearly evoking tears with an achy performance of “Firewood,” adding a series of halting, heart-stopping gasps to “Open.” Perhaps her second-greatest achievement of the concert (we’ll get to the first) “How,” is lifeless as recorded but was a textured, passionate torch song as performed live.
None of those songs is as likely to cross over to general popularity as did the numbers in her breakthrough album, Begin to Hope. But that’s the other side to Spektor’s gift. Every song that comes out of her mouth is an iconic Regina Spektor song, or should be. Saturday, she sang “The Prayer,” a cover of a Russian song in that language, and the delicate, strong, beautiful ode that issued from her mouth brought applause and cheers as if she’d sung her most popular single.
Of course, she did sing her most popular songs, and you should have heard the crowd respond. Lots of artists perform uninspired, middle-of-the-road versions of their hits, knowing that they can’t miss with the audience.
Spektor didn’t rely on her audience’s imagination to carry her. She brought the same level of salesmanship to instantly recognizable songs like “Better” and “Fidelity.” Her band helped with some, like drum set/amplified
versions of “All the Rowboats” and “The Calculation.” “Us” was slower, more stately and altogether better that the studio recording from her Soviet Kitsch album. That song was all on her shoulders.
And then there’s “Samson,” the finale. I’ve always thought this ballad to be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. As Spektor’s voice cast its spell over the crowd, I realized that thought was slightly wrong: “Samson” has no rival in that category whatsoever.
Spektor’s opening act, the solo project Only Son, was far from as wonderful. Composed exclusively of former Moldy Peaches lead guitarist and current Regina Spektor husband Jack Dishel, Only Son bounced between genres like a pinball machine, trying to settle on a Death Cab for Cutie-esque sound but hitting ‘90s emo, acoustic rock or pop punk on the way.
See the video below from the Pabst/Riverside YouTube Channel.
For more of TCD’s reviews from the Pabst Theater, Riverside Theater, and Turner Hall Ballroom, visit our Mil Music Page.