Regina Spektor, Leeds July 2010

Regina is beautiful. She has masses of curly brown hair, a wide and warm face with big eyes and a generous smile. In order to see her at the O2 Academy in Leeds I had to brave a sleepless night, a delayed airplane from Italy, a coach, a walk under driving rain with a broken heavy bag to carry, a train, a rushed lookup of the place and finally a drive. I had promised a friend I would go and see her for him, as he couldn’t make it and he adores her. I didn’t know her at all before this, I found out later I had heard Fidelity on the radio various times a few years back and wondered at her bravura. But Roberto sent me Braille, and then I heard Après Moi. From somewhere else I heard Flowers. This woman, I realized, is exceptional. Why hadn’t I heard more of her before?
I downloaded all her albums and ordered her last one, Far, on Amazon, hoping to get a hard copy I could then try and get Regina to sign: it would have made Roberto’s day.

Then one terrible day a couple of weeks ago, my friend writes (In Italian) about her cellist Dan Cho dying in a swimming accident. I was shocked: I was only just getting to feel for this woman, to appreciate her immensely, and such a tragedy for her… and yet she went back the next day and played anyway, leaving the cello on stage, illuminated.
Seeing her would be even more poignant. The fact that they swam in the Geneva Lake whilst in the middle of touring, such a simple, joyous, infantile thing to do, the sort of thing I used to do, instead of playing the “stars” and, say, clubbing. And the price paid was humongous, enormous, unconceivable. I felt for her, so much.
So, all the hassle to get there, it had to be done. A kindly bouncer showed me a closer and safer parking space, explained I’m not late at all, Regina wouldn’t start till 9, so I went and parked better. I felt strange and yet right, being there alone, after neither my husband for lack of babysitter, nor any of our friends came. Somehow, it was meant to be a private, intimate moment, and it was.
I got myself a Guinness, and listened to Regina’s friend (as she was keen to point out). People clapped loads and she was happy about it, so I am glad for her.
My feet, clad in really high white platform sandals so that I could hope to actually SEE Regina, were killing me.
She arrived a little late, but she arrived. I knew what she looked like from google, but somehow I knew she wouldn’t look like any of those google images. She was wearing a curious brown dress, very old fashioned, almost a simple Mother Russia countrywoman’s attire. It made her look alarmingly vulnerable. Her hair was uncoiffed, just masses of brown curls. She wore no discernible make-up. She smiled a big smile to the applause, big big eyes. An idiot said “Speak!”. Is she a trained monkey? She smiled a little sadly in response and started immediately singing instead. She was accompanied by a viola/violinist, a drummer and her own piano.
She started with Better. The studio version has a lot more electronica going on. This was raw, almost weeping, strong and poignant. “If I kiss you where it’s sore, will you feel better?”. I had a good view of her. Her eyes would crunch up, the muscles in her face would contract and distend with the effort. There was none of the studio playfulness in this version, just desperation and incredible beauty of delivery. Immediately afterwards she continued with One More Time With Feeling. I listen to this, as I don’t have an album to compare it to yet, and there is no comparison. It’s a different song, the one I heard last night was far more intense, perfect and crystalline and yet filled with soul. It was also much longer but this might be my impression. Towards the end of this first couple of songs I am transfixed by her beauty, a true beauty that moves all her facial muscles in delivering a song rather than the static plastic beauty we are so used to seeing elsewhere.
We then continue onto Folding Chairs. A happy go lucky “summer” song, with vocal sounds that bring us back to dolphins and seals. She performs it with an almost angry determination, you know it’s a cute song and you know it’s not meant to be so intense, but it’s a relief, you can tell, for her to play with her voice and bang (beautifully) on the piano. We let her.
Two Birds is sung less sweetly and more poignantly than on the album. It is a beautiful, beautiful song, she is still intense, gorgeous, performing and the violin struggles to follow completely. I wonder whether the violinist might be so used to playing along with the cellist that he now feels lost. In any case, this amazing song was delivered with such intensity, that both she and the audience at the end were left a little speechless. Regina has a visible moment of emotion.
She then continues with EET:
This is probably too much even for me. I feel tears welling up in my eyes, and I can see that they are for her as well. Her voice becomes more powerful in response. We all travel this journey she provides for us with intensity, with beauty, with gratefulness. The piano interlude is not as soft and paced as in the studio version: passion and intensity have crystallized and added notes to it. Her voice is not as sweet as the studio’s, her voice is also at times deeper and warmer, and when it rises it becomes moist and filled with friable iced snowflakes. At the end of Eet, there is a verse, “feel the beat” and Regina makes the ensuing beat sounds for much longer than in the album version: it is unbearably like a heartbeat, that progressively diminishes and slows down, until it stops.
The emotion now is truly palpable. Regina stays silent a moment, takes a big breath, and continues.
She sings Machine and Blue Lips. (The songs are good album songs in the studio, but Regina is starting to leave us. She is a professional, she is a performer, but her thoughts are elsewhere. I feel like we’re invading her privacy, she seems to be struggling a little. You can see she really wants to perform, but I look around and see greater excitement from the people than is justified by these songs’ delivery. People sing along. “The colour of our planet from far far away” is repeated many times. She is thinking of something, someone far far away, and we are far away with her. We are still travelling with her.
There is a pause, idiot number two makes moany sounds, it’s like an assault, she smiles sweetly to brush him off, and continues. Who on earth are these people? I admire her class, her dignified response to such idiocy.
We continue with On the radio. This song is very upbeat in its message as well,
This is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t
You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath
and it seems to bring her up quite a lot too. We’re kind of dancing, and it reminds me lots of Fidelity. I wonder whether she will play it.
Laughing with is delivered dead-pan, almost exactly like in her video. At least at the beginning. There is some hurt creeping through, and the slightest touch of resentment. But far less than you’d expect. I’m not sure whether she meant the song to “praise God”, but it sure sounded like she had found a touch of cynicism and a touch of anger if she did.
I went to get myself a Bailey’s. A succession of songs follows: I believe she then sang Ode to Divorce but I’m not so sure, it all started to become very subtle, lower… Regina had gone.
Après moi, an incredible song that she manages to sing without much feeling, Piano is not firewood yet, Somedays (a very sad song, sung almost hushed, very very beautiful but almost indistinguishable here). She gets up and puts on an aquamarine guitar. People get excited and applaud but it looks like she’s going through the motions, not really wanting to be there, finding it very hard to move at all. She sings Bobbing for Apples, people are stirred and touched. I didn’t know the song so all I noticed was the fun line that Someone next door’s fucking to one of my songs. Another lovely lovely song That time, has a strong bass sound but becomes almost monotone. And then Back to piano, Human of the year, all pretty tuneless. Man of a thousand faces, Summer in the city, Samson, Us.
I felt like going onstage, wrapping Regina up in a warm blanket, offering her a cup of tea and taking her away, to a warm, cosy place among friends. I looked forward to hearing Braille, or Flowers, to see whether even such songs could be deprived of feeling, but Regina starts on Fidelity. I recognize it, barely, and I wonder how she can sing it: it’s such an upbeat song, almost cheekily telling us she was never in love (or the person singing, as Regina says they are never autobiographical) but music breaks her heart. I don’t know whether that was the intended meaning but that’s what I got from it: a happy song. The pain that exudes from this live version is almost unbearable. Her voice can’t keep up with the vocal game in “heart”. People want to dance but Regina can barely finish the song. People clap their hands. Regina finally, and for the first time, speaks. Her voice is incredibly sweet, and very very light, like a little girl’s. She says she just wanted to say a couple of words before they left. She speaks about Dan Cho, her friend and cellist and of how he “tragically passed away”. She asks the audience to remember him, and says thank you for being there because singing songs helps. She then walks off the stage to huge applause. The violinist says goodbye and leaves as well. I don’t see the drummer exit the stage. A few people ask for an encore (are they stupid?). Lights come on, recorded music starts. Just to make a point.
I am grateful to my friend Roberto for granting me the opportunity to get to know and listen to this incredible creature, and feel very sad for this eclectic and sturdy artist who was so vulnerable and fragile tonight and gave her all, for as long as she could muster. She deserves our full attention, and I very much look forward to receiving her new album, Far.


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