Regina Spektor’s Unfettered Imagination, Ever-Ready Humor and Disarming Sincerity Shine In Los Angeles Review: Regina Spektor at the Walt Disney Concert Hall 3/7/23
LOS ANGELES, CA- Regina Spektor brought her special run of solo performances to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles this week, delivering a soaring, funny and poignant performance in support of her latest album, Home, before and after, after a bout with Covid-19 forced her to postpone tour dates in the fall.
The simplicity felt like a privilege to witness. Armed only with a grand piano, a keyboard, one guitar and a wooden chair she used for percussion, Spektor shared intimate arrangements of 22 songs that spanned her career, while the stellar acoustics of the room showcased her elastic voice and evocative piano (even if she joked that the hallowed space was making her too polite, promptly swearing to set the mood right).
“This is a nice way of being surrounded,” she said with a laugh. She took in the 360-degree seating, twirling in her colorful dress and wishing everyone a happy Purim, the joyful Jewish holiday that fell on the day of the show. After opening with “Ain’t No Cover” a capella, she jumped into “Folding Chair,” a quintessentially Regina track with bright piano, a quick detour for a dolphin’s song and the lyric “I’ve got a perfect body because my eyelashes catch my sweat.”
She moved into two standout songs from her recent album that both nail her trademark combination of wisdom and whimsy. In “Becoming All Alone,” she’s walking home alone when she hears God calling her name, so they stop to have a beer. They wouldn’t even have to pay, because that’s a job perk when you’re God. She asks why life doesn’t necessarily get better or less lonely with time, and she asks him to stay.
Longtime fans were then treated to “Loveology,” a song they bootlegged for years until a studio version appeared on Home, before and after. She casts herself as a schoolteacher instructing students to “open up your textbooks to page 42” and study a handful of -ologies: “porcupine-ology, antler-ology, car-ology, bus-ology.” Those give way to “stay-ology, please-ology.” As the song crescendos, her request for the class transforms into a more urgent plea to pay attention to what it means to care. As it does on the record, her voice broke while she repeated ”I’m sorry-ology, forgive me-ology,” moving some in the audience to tears.
Her blend of unfettered imagination, ever-ready humor and disarming sincerity — often all in one song — is a lovely quality that’s never left her work, even after eight albums and all the life in between. It’s equally interesting to learn that this seems to be the only way she knows how to write a song, even when she didn’t realize she could.
As a teenager, Spektor was hiking through the Negev Desert during an arts trip to Israel. She wasn’t much of a hiker, so she resorted to making up songs along the way. She’d never thought of herself as a songwriter, either, so she was surprised when kids started hiking closer and closer to her. In the evenings, they began asking her to sing one or another again.
“So I started remembering songs. And people would be like ‘Oh, you should definitely do this!’” Spektor recalled in a 2005 interview with New York Public Radio. “I’d feel like, ‘Oh, you’re joking.’”
But after she returned home to the Bronx, people continued to encourage her talent, sending her tapes in the mail from artists like Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco. (I vote to bring physical music pen pal exchanges into 2023; it sounds like a blast.)
“Then it was like, ‘Wow, people are allowed to do this?’” she said. “People are allowed to write songs and they could develop this. This is legit.”
All these years later, Spektor still radiates delighted disbelief and gratitude that some people get to keep making up songs and sharing them for a living. And she hasn’t lost access to her childlike creativity or her penchant for improvising, making the NPR team laugh with a ditty about traveling to their offices for her Tiny Desk performance in August.
As with the Tiny Desk, the solo structure of this show reminded us what makes her special, too. Although it would’ve been nice to see full instrumentation behind her in a concert hall — songs like “On the Radio” are known for their plucked strings, and Home, before and after is an album lush with orchestration — her freedom to change tempo at will was a surprising strength. She could rush to convey excitement, and she could linger in a moment of empathy.
The rest of the set toured hits and sprinkled in odd gems like “Baby Jesus” (in this vein, I was ready to relish in “Music Box,” but alas), as well as the welcome takedown of the “Poor Little Rich Boy” from Soviet Kitsch, in which she played piano with her left hand and kept time with a drumstick on a wooden chair with her right.
“Your chair is so talented!” someone shouted. “You kid, but we fly with it,” Spektor replied.
To the audience’s delight, she picked up her turquoise Epiphone Wildkat guitar for “That Time” and “Bobbing for Apples,” apologizing to a young girl near the front for all the profanity in the latter. It’s her parents’ fault, she joked, for taking a kid to a show “at night!” She also dedicated “Apres Moi” to the ending of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with a portion of proceeds from merchandise benefitting Ukrainian refugees.
The only guest who joined her was a memorable one: her friend Caleb Teicher, a skillful tap dancer whose footwork served as the percussive accompaniment on “Silly Eye-Color Generalizations” and “Prisoners.”
In the night’s most powerful moment, Spektor, the child of Russian-Jewish parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union in her youth, shared the rarely performed “Ink Stains,” a striking condemnation of Holocaust deniers. “I wish I could cure the friendly neighbors of the disease that makes them hate us,” she sang on the evening of Purim.
There’s no good way to pivot into another song after “Ink Stains,” she acknowledged. Instead, she noted the night’s full moon and asked everyone to join her in letting out their most cathartic howl, drawing her biggest laugh. It was a moment not everyone could pull off, especially in a room like the Disney Hall. But it was further evidence of her magic-trick ability to run you through a spectrum of feelings — sometimes disparate ones — and every moment somehow lands.
“Here are the things I love about Regina Spektor,” tweeted culture critic Emily Nussbaum last year. “Brilliant songwriter. Gorgeous voice. Funny! Thrilling model of Jewishness & femininity without being entrapped by either? Somehow writes about every emotion on earth without seeming tortured, a miracle.”
She wrapped the night with two essentials from 2006’s Begin to Hope, “Fidelity” and “Samson,” returning the audience to the core of her work.
There’s an argument to be made for separating the art from the artist, but, in this case, there’s one to be made for the opposite. Regina Spektor songs are affecting because of her musical prowess, but also because so much of herself travels through them. When you’re in the same room with her, you’ll goof around, you’ll be sad, you’ll howl at the moon, you’ll make irreverent jokes, you’ll share things that mean something to you, you’ll feel better. And, with any luck, you’ll leave inspired to look at the world a bit more like she does.
“You have a heart,” she sings in “Becoming All Alone.” “Why don’t you use it?”
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