October 15, 2016

The Inherent Charm of Regina Spektor

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This past Friday, Dan Smalls Presents treated us to a lovely and endearing performance at the State Theatre of Ithaca by inviting Regina Spektor to pay the city a visit. Waiting for the start of the concert, the theater was loud and everyone seemed in a slight daze, presumably from the recent turn of the weather, or maybe as a residual effect from the week’s earlier presidential debate. The cold outside had everyone shedding layers of coats, or drinking off the chill, or both. A half hour after the projected start time, as people could be heard asking their neighbors, “The opener hasn’t even started yet?” Spektor waltzed out onto the stage with drummer Mathias Kunzli, cellist Yoed Nir and keyboardist Brad Whiteley.

“Oh my gosh she’s so cute!” I heard someone half-whisper off to my left.

Spektor and her band started off the set with “On the Radio,” which set the crowd cheering all the way to the back of the theatre, where apparently they were more than content with what they could see from the cheap-seats. Wrapping up the song, she looked out at the crowd, grabbed the microphone with both hands and breathed “Ithacaaa” into it, before launching us on a brief history of Ithaca’s almost-Hollywood fate and saying, “I’m actually just a talking picture,” as she turned back to the piano.

The band ran through “Better” and “Tornadoland,” and afterwards someone shouted to her, “I love you!” Hands on her back, she looked out and said, “Hm, as I’m tucking a wire to the back of my pants because I was sitting on it… the glamour.”

In every chorus of “Bleeding Heart,” her band came through in the most glorious way — Kunzli, Nir and Whiteley know just how to amplify all the best in Spektor’s sound in a way so seamless you wonder how they manage to switchback through emotions like that. The audience applauded so loudly that Spektor couldn’t finish the song at first, having to wait before singing the lyrics, “How long must I wait?” Immediately at the end of the song she admitted, “I felt so rude saying that first line after you guys clapped.”

She enraptured the audience and never quite stopped interacting with them, whether it was encouraging them to clap along, waving out or responding to whatever was being yelled towards the stage. The next time someone yelled, “I love you Regina!” she leaned into the microphone and whispered, “I love you too.”

Spektor is largely a paradox to me, because it seems that all of her energy lives in her music. When she speaks, her voice is almost too soft-spoken, she hesitates frequently, she laughs a lot, shyly and sometimes has to pause and collect herself. She’s charming and did not fail to say thank you after any of her songs, seeming taken aback by the applause each time. She got nervous a few times and messed up parts of her songs, each time telling us that she hadn’t practiced enough, which evokes memories of any middle-school recital with a performer who’s more talented than she’s letting you know. But a second after bowing her head she touches down on the keys of the piano and begins singing with such a powerful versatility that you’re blown away. Her voice will dust at you like a feather but her singing will rock you to your core.

Spektor singing “Small Bill$” is a feat to watch. She writhes to that song and manipulates her own voice so effortlessly that you can’t help but be a bit floored by her preternatural ease at creating her own sound effects. She followed up that song with “Ballad of a Politician,” of which she said, “this next song I’d like to dedicate to our united and collective power of voting.”

Somewhere behind me, I heard someone say to their friend, “I’m not voting,” a few times, as if in private protest to her performance. It seemed to be the only moment that generated any friction, however, as the crowd was shouting compliments at her and her band and practically throwing applause at them throughout the set. Every time Spektor stood up she was applauded anew. “It’s amazing to get applauded for moving,” she confided at one point.

After “The Trapper and the Furrier” ripped the room apart with Spektor’s wailing chorus crescendo of “more, more, more, more!” the audience reached back at her, repeating the same word in an effort to cajole her to “Come back soon!” or better yet, “Don’t leave!”

Watching Spektor perform truly is a marvel. You’re so wowed by her raw talent and the clearly massive amount of time the band has invested into creating such a beautifully sculpted range of sound, but you also feel so proud of her you could burst. It’s hard to know whether to feel like a parent or a child when she’s performing for you. She creates a very intimate and open atmosphere just by being vulnerable beyond her music, which shrinks down the theatre so it feels more like a room.

The audience couldn’t get enough of her, and demanded an encore as the band left the stage. After a few minutes they reemerged to a trio of “Fidelity,” “Hotel Song” and “Samson,” this last with only Spektor on the stage and most of the audience in tears. The song makes you feel both childish and very, very old. Perhaps that’s the best way that Spektor could have left us that evening; straddling the same lines that she does, touching the edges of something quite beautiful and then going off again into the dark of the night.