Words by Paul Gallear / Lead pic by Michelle Martin – taken for Express & Star
A man, younger than I am but around the same height, is wondering around the streets of Sheffield, slightly lost. He has recently started university and is still unfamiliar with his surroundings.
Shuffling through the snow, he passes The Leadmill – a long-established music venue in the city. ‘TONIGHT: REGINA SPEKTOR’ proclaims the poster by the door. Amazed at his luck he calls around all of his newly-made university friends, trying to find someone to go to the gig with. Either no one is available or they are unwilling to take a risk on a last-minute invitation to an unknown gig. Undeterred, the young man queues that evening in the chilly northern air to try and get a ticket on the door. His luck is in.
It was 20.02.07 and that was the first time I saw Regina Spektor live, touring her 2006 album – Begin to Hope. Ten-and-a-half years later I again had the chance to see her in concert, this time touring her seventh studio release – Remember Us to Life. Nothing would be left to chance this time; I had signed up to the mailing lists and was ready with my unique verification code when the pre-sale opened at 9am.
I managed to secure prime seats a mere six rows back (not too close, not too far) and just off-centre in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, a larger and more prestigious venue than The Leadmill. Hosting the likes of Marina Medvetskaya’s Saint Petersburg Classic Ballet and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Symphony Hall claims to be ‘widely considered one of the finest concert halls in the world’ and their website lists an impressive set of acoustic specifications (all of the venues on Regina Spektor’s six date UK tour are more up-market than they were a decade ago). Sporting my by now vintage Soviet Kitsch album T-shirt from the Sheffield gig, I survey the stage: a black Steinway & Sons grand piano, a monikered drum kit, a cello, a guitar, and a keyboard. Can that be the same piano stool as last time? Am I dreaming? Musicians can be creatures of habit.
Despite this being a show without support and having a tightly-scheduled start and finish time, Regina Spektor takes to the stage half-an-hour late. The room is not quite sold out, but the anticipation has built and Spektor enters stage right to rapturous applause and cheers. She and the band burst into ‘The Calculation’.
Full disclosure. Some of the tracks from Regina Spektor’s latest album haven’t struck a great chord with me; it is the album I have listened to least frequently. The opening half of tonight’s set is, as you’d expect, laden with these new tracks (such as ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘Tornadoland’ and ‘The Light’) which are performed to an enthusiastic audience. I even find myself enjoying these songs live in a way I hadn’t enjoyed recorded. But during these early numbers I pick up on a buzzing sound which is surprising from a venue that boasts about its acoustics – I would have expected perfection.
The set is diverse. Regina Spektor is of course always present, but she is either backed by the entire band whilst she plays piano and sings, or abandons the piano and sings more like a pop star with a backing band. Her playing has few audible mistakes and the cello playing is, I’m reliably informed, very good. For other tracks, such as ‘That Time’, she abandons the piano all together and picks up the guitar. But for me some of the best and most successful tracks are when the band leaves and Spektor plays such song as ‘Après Moi’ unaccompanied (how many songs can you name which feature three different languages?).
The quiet nature of the audience between songs is not something I’m used to (being a frequenter of more rock-orientated concerts) but Regina Spektor manages to hold the atmosphere. That’s not to say that she is entirely silent in these short gaps. “Do you have a train to catch?” she sasses when an audience member calls for ‘Samson’, a track which would be played (inevitably) as part of the encore.
There is even an endearing moment of humour at the beginning of ‘Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’ a favourite track of mine from Begin to Hope, when Spektor forgets her own lyrics; cue a great moment of audience interaction as she calls out for prompts. But I do get the feeling that a lot of these songs have stories behind them that I would have loved Regina Spektor to have gone into, giving us a little insight into her life and writing process.
Nor does she forget where she is; giving a nod to the Birmingham audience by mentioning that local boy Jeff Lynne (of E.L.O fame) had been a producer on her album Far, Spektor bursts in ‘Folding Chair’ – a bouncy crowd-pleaser.
As I mentioned, Regina Spektor ends her encore with perhaps her most famous and most enduring song, ‘Samson’ (after ‘Us’ that is, which was performed with aplomb just before exiting the stage for the first time). I’m not a fan of the trite modern assumption that artists will play always an encore at the end of the set, but nothing could have pleased me more than to have seen Spektor’s ruby-red shoes patter across the stage once more to retake their place on the piano’s sustain pedal. The audience are on their feet at the end of the show and it is thoroughly deserved.
Adding a band to her live shows, Regina Spektor has developed a more complex and mature sound in the last decade. But I can’t help wonder if something of the arty rawness and fun of her earlier performances might have been lost along the way. Spektor has come a long way since emerging from the anti-folk scene in downtown New York’s East Village, and she does concentrate on her work from the previous three albums rather than delving into her archives.
Back in Sheffield we stood in awe as Regina Spektor, bandless, thwacked out a rhythm on her piano stool using a drumstick; in Birmingham we sit as she and her band play through a largely flawless set. Though I don’t leave disappointed, I am greedy. I would like a second show, more stripped back without a band and with a smaller audience, during which she could reconnect with her roots. A boy can dream.
Thoroughly satisfied that my high expectations have been met, I leave the venue clutching a new t-shirt. Hopefully I won’t have to wait another decade to wear it to one of her concerts.
For more on Regina Spektor, visit www.reginaspektor.com
For more from the Town and Symphony Halls, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.thsh.co.uk
For more from SJM Concerts/Gigs & Tours, visit www.gigsandtours.com