The star of the evening, however, was met with very enthusiastic applause when she appeared with her typical goofy grin and dressed in distinctly punk aesthetic, with what was either a poofy short black skirt that belonged on an old-style cocktail waitress or was simply a ruffly tutu. This over black leggings and a vintage white t-shirt with a black belt over it completed a picture that I thought kind of captured the musical innovation that Spektor represents: a punk aesthetic based not on three chords of distorted guitars and crashing drum set, but rather based upon clearly classical piano training. I imagined sending her back in time to 1978 to appear on stage, and had a suspicion that she would have been completely ignored or rejected by the ancestors of tonight's audience. The musical revolution that punk is an example of has had to evolve and deepen to produce what Regina is doing as a songwriter and performer, both on her piano and with her vocals.
She opened a cappella on the microphone, tapping out a bass drum beat with her fingers on the mic, with "Ain't No Cover" before settling in at the piano for "On The Radio." The night's setlist leaned heavily toward supporting her most recent CD release, 2006's Begin To Hope, which is still being heard all over the television, from song placements in hit shows to J.C. Penney's latest advertising campaign. A fair sampling of earlier releases, particularly of 2004's Soviet Kitsch, as well as what I took to be a new song or two, filled out the setlist, which I reproduce here:
Ain't No CoverThe crowd was enthusiastic, placing itself entirely in Regina's hand from the moment she began, as she teased the audience in a friendly way, asking the Milwaukeeans ("I'll call you 'Milwookies,'" she confided) what was up with their being so unprogressive as to be still smoking indoors in public spaces? When she thanked them for not smoking (following the posted notices "at the artist's request") "because I'm a quitter," she was given a massive cheer of approval. It was a good atmosphere (so to speak) for an artist to walk into. Appearing here without a band, which I think I rather preferred my first time to one of her shows, the crowd sang along with her more well-known singles, giving a distinctly choral feel to those pieces (a choir that I thought leaned female, although the audience was looked to be almost as many men as women). This didn't really distract from the performance as the sound kept Regina's voice clear and loud above the crowd, losing only some of her brief comments or thanks after a song to the cheering crowd. The listeners tended to also burst out when she pulled one of her distinctive "bad vocal" moves, where Regina stands out for having incorporating into her vocal music the kind of vocal noises we make when we are "screwing around" as we sing, and fill space with some awful or unorthodox noise when we fail to sing something correctly. Never before had I heard someone just take that kind of vocal vocabulary and make it "orthodox" by willfully incorporating it into their vocals. The delighted crowd response equaled the kind of mad cheering one would hear for a "guitar god" playing some standout electric guitar solo: I think that it is this kind of reversal that has her music filed under the (perhaps equally unorthodox) label of "antifolk." I whispered in Julie's ear that I'd not seen anyone since James Brown who could get such a rise out of a crowd for some random noise to come out of their mouth. [Thus recalling the old joke passed around when I was in high school of doing a crossword puzzle while sitting with James Brown: "James, what's an eight letter word for 'working with determination'?" "Bwwaoahl!" "Great! Thanks, James."]
On The Radio
One More Time With Feeling
Poor Little Rich Boy
Bobbing For Apples
A Lesson In How Fleeting Preservation Is
Summer in the City
Human of the Year
Ghost of Corporate Future
Real Love (by John Lennon)
Seeing Regina live was interesting in that I didn't really find myself getting lost in her music, as her sheer goofiness kept punctuating her performance, whereas although that whimsy is equally evident in her recordings, there you can perhaps be more struck and moved by the startling juxtaposition of her images in a way that you cannot when you are in her presence. There is an intelligence and an emotional depth to her music that is isn't obscured by her delivery, though her innovations of style may distract from it. She does not let you dwell in her music so easily live: her personality is too strong, nor is there any hint of her taking herself that seriously. She is not in any way trying to go out of her way to pluck at her audience's heartstrings, or to create any emotional mood that she will let the audience settle in. [The concert was two hours of uninterrupted pleasure, other than a bit of Christian cringing and grimacing for whatever episode it was that had Spektor write in the bouncy and wry "Baby Jesus" the lines about the self-righteous religious believers who proclaimed ""All nonbelievers, they get to eat dirt, and believers get to spit on their graves." But I suppose that it's particularly good for me to be forced to remember that this is the image, even if it's just a stereotype, that many people carry in their heads about Christianity, when I reflexively see the people who, wherever they are, bring schools, hospitals and social services into being, while sustaining the intellectual and cultural tradition that has given birth to much of our heritage of art, music, literature, philosophy, and science, as well as theology. Neither picture tells the whole story, sadly enough.] Rarely, though, does a lyricist provoke so much laughter today without trying to be a comedy performer as such, in the "Weird Al" mode. "Whimsical" is not a descriptor we hand out to many recording artists, who function in an industry where Image so often overwhelms the music itself, or where the music is used as a tool to convey a certain image of the artists' incomparable coolness, sexual attractiveness, or guru command of what's going on. Regina, on the other hand, is clearly a dork; and she rather revels in it. She might succeed so well in her performances because she invites the audience to both recognize and accept her dorkiness, and to admit their own by enjoying her cheerfully goofy lyrical commentary. Doubtless like many recording artists before her, she took a distinctly amused and triumphant pleasure in observing in "Bobbing For Apples" that "Someone next door’s fucking to one of my songs." But she's the only one who's ever actually sang it.
Although a little under the weather, she was enjoying herself enough to offer the audience a six-song encore, although she had clearly saved her hottest singles "Us," "Fidelity," and "Samson" for that occasion, with audience demand running high to hear these hits. Only Son was brought out to provide a beatbox vocal rhythm on another microphone for the manic "Hotel Song" to great audience approval, which was then followed by a second a cappella offering, when Regina recalled that Milwaukee was mentioned in another song of hers, and so she thought she ought so sing that for us. "It's called 'Dead Rat'," she deadpanned, and like her earlier comments about smoking, what in another artist might have been taken as arrogant or rude was here received by the audience in the spirit in which it was intended: just sheer fun and play, which lots of laughter. She then launched into a skipping, stream-of-consciousness song that might have been written when she was twelve, which the audience received as though it were a masterpiece, with the obligatory cheer at the offhand reference to Milwaukee. She ended strongly and more movingly with "Field Below" and "Samson," giving something of the lie to what I said above about her willingness to sing a little more "straight" and to the hearts of the audience. Either way, she had long since won us all over, giving me and Jules more than enough to talk about for the next hour as we walked back down Wisconsin Avenue to my apartment, 'til she called it a night around midnight and headed home.
EDIT: I embedded some YouTube videos from the show of "Dead Rat," "Hotel Song" with Only Son, and her beautiful "Samson"