Acoustic and Solo Acts Dominate Concert Scene

Singers from Tori Amos to Little Richard light up marquees

THIS spring's busy New York pop-concert season is studded with big-name acts. The following reviews sum up several stand-outs.

Tori Amos

Tori Amos's music is unconventional, and so are her concert appearances. She eschews most of the trappings of a star in MTV heavy rotation, and is currently touring the country playing in small theaters. Performing on piano without the accompaniment of a band (there are recorded backings on a couple of songs), her show is strictly a no-frills affair.

The singer who has a playful presence onstage, performed numbers from her two best-selling albums, ``Little Earthquakes'' and ``Under the Pink.'' Amos's songs reveal painful moments in her life, which she leavens dark comic observations.

Amos joked often with the audience, displaying an easy confidence. Her adoring fans sat in rapt silence as Amos, often singing in little more than a whisper, poured out confessional material.

Amos's music doesn't particularly benefit from the stripped-down approach, as the lack of orchestration many times reveals the lack of true melody or structure in her songs. Often missed was the polished production of her recordings, or at least the textures that other instruments could have provided.

But her vocal powers were undiminished, and she displayed an astonishing accuracy of pitch. She also proved that her sense of irony was intact, performing a genuinely absorbing solo-piano version of Nirvana's ``Smells Like Teen Spirit.'' Like that song's writer, Kurt Cobain, Tori Amos seems an unwilling candidate for pop stardom, but unlike that tragic figure, she seems to have a strong aptitude for survival.

Ricki Lee Jones

Ricki Lee Jones hasn't scored a hit since her 1979 smash single, ``Chuck E.'s in Love,'' but this distinctive singer, in the course of the half-dozen albums that followed, has forged a strong career with a devoted following. She tours infrequently, so her current nationwide tour in support of her album, ``Traffic From Paradise,'' counts as an event.

Like Amos, she is also performing solo, alternating between guitar and piano. On her New York date, her sole accompanist for several numbers was bassist Rob Wasserman, on whose recent album she guest stars.

Also like Amos, Jones seems a reluctant performer, shy and unassuming, and had to be practically dragged onstage for her encore.

Playing a scattering of tunes from her enduring repertoire, with an emphasis on early material, Jones proved she has lost none of her vocal prowess. Her mannered singing, with its bluesy intonations, is an acquired taste. But her voice is a marvelous instrument, capable of remarkable precision. It's the kind of voice that can sustain interest throughout even a solo-acoustic show, and was equally powerful on both her rueful reflections of lower class American life and on covers ranging from ``Rebel, Rebel'' to ``Autumn Leaves.''

If anything, Wasserman's accompaniment was unnecessary. At one point, where he was particularly tricky with his playing, creating an unusual but practically unlistenable sound, she smiled, shook her head, and said tolerantly, ``Interesting, Bob.''

At times excessive in her vocal mannerisms on her recordings, in concert Ricki Lee Jones demonstrated that she is one of the most impressive singers in the jazz-pop idiom.

Little Richard

Little Richard, alias Richard Penniman, is one of the pioneers of rock-and-roll, or, as he describes himself, the ``King of Rock.''

Unlike his contemporaries Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, or Jerry Lee Lewis, he has been absent from the concert scene for decades, devoting himself to religious work and an intermittent acting career.

But this summer he will embark on a nationwide tour, and for a warm-up he recently played two nights at New York's intimate Supper Club night spot.

At his peak, Richard was a volatile presence in the newborn world of rock. He's humorously aware of the passage of time, pointing out early in the show, ``I'm not as fast as I used to be, but I shouldn't have been that fast before.''

Backed by a seven-piece band, he ripped through his biggest hits: ``Good Golly, Miss Molly,'' ``Lucille,'' ``The Girl Can't Help It,'' ``Rip It Up,'' ``Tutti Frutti,'' ``Long Tall Sally.'' He also played a few hits that weren't his, including ``Blueberry Hill'' and ``Boney Maroney.''

Richard was obviously nervous, asking the audience about every two minutes if they were having a good time. He was also deeply concerned about getting more blue spotlights directed toward him, and worried about the possibility that anyone might be sneaking some photographs.

But his powerful voice and his uncanny boogie-woogie style of piano playing are largely intact, and the show was a delightful retrospective of rock classics. If a bit short at 65 minutes and no encore, the concert was a reminder of Little Richard's enduring place in rock.

Crowded House

Crowded House, the post-Split Enz group led by Neil Finn (and occasionally his brother Tim), has long been known for its pop sheen and its gift for Beatlesque melodies. Currently touring large clubs around the country in support of their fourth album, ``Together Alone,'' the band members demonstrate in concert that they are also powerful rockers.

Their new album doesn't have the strong melodies that prevailed in their last release, ``Woodface,'' but it does have a greater spirit of adventure in its production and arrangements. That is necessarily sacrificed on tour, as are the strong harmonies that are the group's centerpiece (and Tim Finn is sorely missed). But the current show proves again that Crowded House is one of the best, most sophisticated pop-rock groups around, and Neil Finn, in fine voice and playful spirits, is one of the best singers.

Performing selections from all four albums, from their biggest hit, ``Don't Dream It's Over'' (1986) to their current charting single, ``Locked Out,'' (featured on both their new album and the ``''Reality Bites'' soundtrack), Crowded House proved that melody and the catchy hook haven't completely lost their place in pop music.

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