Usually, the best gauge of how well a performance has gone over with an audience is listening to how loudly they cheer when the music stops.
But the most telling aspect of Tori Amos' performance at Washington's Lisner Auditorium Sunday wasn't the deafening applause that followed each selection, but the utter silence that prevailed while she was playing. It's one thing, after all, to get an audience on its feet, quite another to leave it utterly enraptured.
Amos did both, though, in the course of her 17-song performance.
When she launched into tunes like "Happy Phantom" or "Precious Things," the fans reacted with audible enthusiasm, cheering during the intros and hooting appreciatively at well-liked lyrics. But when Amos turned to quieter material -- songs like "Upside Down" or the hymn-like "Song for Eric" -- the audience responded with silence so profound you could almost hear the singer's heartbeat.
How does Amos manage to command such undivided attention?
Obviously, a lot of it has to do with her songs, which at their best are tuneful enough to hook any pop fan, and so dramatic that the listener is left hanging on every word. Nor does it hurt that she's a marvelous pianist, competent enough to do without a band, and capable of such bravura effects that the listener hardly notices she's the only one playing. (She did, however, use a taped rhythm track for both "God" and "Cornflake Girl.")
But what ultimately makes Amos' performance so riveting is its sense of communication. It hardly mattered that everyone in the crowd already knew the story behind "Me and a Gun," Amos' song about being sexually assaulted; her delivery was so powerful and compelling that its sordid details still came as a shock.
There aren't many singers in popular music who can make such a strong, emotional connection with their audience, much less do so without seeming maudlin or manipulative.
Perhaps that's why Amos' fans are so devoted to her music -- and why she probably won't be playing halls as small as Lisner for long.