I can still remember the first time I heard “Fidelity.” The bubbly, twee-filled, hit single from New York singer-songwriter and pianist Regina Spektor. As a kid I would wake up and turn on VH1 Top 20 Music Videos, that video was mesmerizing to me. The song was light hearted and easily accessible for a kid, even if I had no idea what the song was about.
Spektor dawned all black and white, with white shoes, in a black and white tiled room. It had this Alice in Wonderland feel to it, with other worldly things like an invisible man, a swing in the middle of the room and her blue eyes struck me immediately with this innocence in this absurd world she had created around her. Paired with her angelic singing voice and incredible range I couldn’t get it out of my head.
However, after a few months I really didn’t think much about Spektor again, until I was in college. I was studying one day at a coffee shop in Huntington, WV, when “Fidelity,” came on over the speakers. Because of course it did, Spektor and her musical peers, Fiona Apple, Norah Jones, Joanna Newsom and more paved the way for the twee coffee shop aesthetic that took America by storm in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s.
I decided to put my headphones in and take a more in depth look at Spektor’s catalog. It was then I discovered 2004’s Soviet Kitsch, Spektor’s third record. The album cover was so interesting and eye-catching. It’s Spektor drinking from a bottle, dawning a sailor’s hat surrounded by Russian nesting dolls. It was almost punk in its presentation and that cover juxtaposed to the music on the record made it an incredibly unique and enjoyable listening experience.
As a kid growing up in Upstate, NY, just a few hours north of Manhattan, I too shared Spektor’s intrigue and amazement on Soviet Kitsch, by the people that called New York City their home. Spektor and her family emigrated from the Soviet Union when she was just nine-years-old. This was during the time of Perestroika, when the Soviet Union allowed for their citizens to emigrate from the USSR.
Much of her songwriting at that point and still in some ways to this day, came from her very quirky and personal perspective of life in New York. From observing the businessman on the subway, to the couple in the cafe, there were these incredible stories that harkened back to the Greenwich Village days of New York in the early ‘60s. However, these songs weren’t folk songs about the times, they were instead these complex classical piano tunes filled with so much heartbreak, humor, and absurdity.
Spektor's songwriting paired with her proficiency on the piano made Soviet Kitsch one of my favorite records to listen to in college. She was classically trained on piano starting at the age of six. After leaving the Soviet Union she continued her training on piano and began using it in ways that no one to this day does. Her ability to play these incredibly complex piano parts along with her unique mix of jazz skat, soulful and operatic style of singing that she almost uses as a percussive instrument, made her so intriguing to many fans.
Few artists have had the range, skill, and ability to pull off this form of songwriting. Artists like Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple are few that come to mind. In 2023, I think we have almost lost this type of artist, one that challenges our ears, minds, and heart with the simplicity of a piano and their voice.
So when it was announced that she would be coming through Cincinnati with just her and her piano, I jumped at the chance to see her.
Sunday evening, Spektor graced The Andrew J. Brady Stage with a flock of dedicated and adoring fans eagerly waiting to see the artist who seldom goes on tour in support of her 2022 release, Home, before and after.
Having seen many shows at The Andrew J. Brady Music Center in the last two years, the one thing that most fans and I take away is the sound. After opening its doors in 2021, a flood of new artists that normally would have skipped over the Queen City have picked this venue to stop at and many say it’s due to quality in sound that the venue produces. With a state of the art production system and built to suit everything from a full orchestra to the biggest bands in the country, Cincinnati has been able to bring new and exciting acts that may never have considered the city before.
For artists like Spektor, the sound quality is so crucial to her live performance. Especially with this particular tour as it would be just her, a grand piano, a keyboard, and a chair. Quite literally, as she used a chair as a percussive instrument during her performance of “Poor Little Rich Boy.”
As Spektor walked out on stage she was met with roaring applause that quickly quieted down. As the spotlight hit her with just a mic in hand, she began to play a live staple of her’s “Ain’t No Cover.” An acapella tune that is reminiscent of the days of Ella Fitzgerald, and other jazz singers who could command an audience with just their voice. Spektor, using only her voice and her fingers tapping on the mic to keep the beat, began the show.
In proper Concert Hall fashion, you could hear a pin drop from the crowd as Spektor ate up every ounce of space in the 4,500 capacity theater. She then took her seat at the grand piano that took up most of the stage. As she began to feel out the keys, she began to giggle. The first of many authentic and intimate moments with Spektor.
From forgetting her opening notes on “Eet,” and breaking into laughter, easing the audience and breaking the often serious and emotional moments of the show. To scrapping songs off the setlist entirely and substituting them for crowd suggestions like “Hotel Song.” Spektor even took fan suggestions online prior to the show and then practiced tunes she hadn’t played in some time like, “On the Radio.” It was truly one of the most intimate and personalized performances for an audience I have seen.
It’s arguably more difficult to play to an audience that is sitting and hanging on every note, word, and sound that you make on stage. However, Spektor reveled in it, it seemed. Laughing throughout, saying things like, “Why do I write songs with so many words and so many notes?” As she again got confused trying to remember an archived tune from her 25 year career.
This all made the entire evening feel like a friend came over for a dinner party and just started playing the piano in your house. You gather around in amazement as she dazzles with her ability but has to cut the at times awkward silence for the crowd as they watch in awe.
One of those many “In Awe” moments for me came during “Poor Little Rich Boy.” A favorite of mine off of Soviet Kitsch. As mentioned before, yes, Spektor used a wooden chair that sat beside her and began hitting it with a drumstick. To create the uptempo beat of the tune, while simultaneously playing keys with one hand and singing. It was simply incredible, I found myself quite literally sitting on the edge of my seat, like she was some magician and I couldn’t wait to see what her next trick would be.
She also gave a nod and somber farewell to the late Sinead O’Connor, with a dedication to her after playing “One More Time with Feeling.” With the breakdown of the song saying, “This is why we fight,” clearly a nod to O’Connor’s long career of activism.
As Spektor began to bring the evening to a close, there were several songs that the crowd still needed to hear and she did not disappoint. From “Us,” the standout single from Soviet Kitsch, to “Sampson,” arguably my favorite song by Spektor, to “Fidelity,” Spektor gave fans everything they wanted and more.
Each song to me served as an encore as all of them could’ve been the final song of the evening. However, there is something special about hearing that song that so intrigued me all those years ago watching VH1 on Saturday morning. The song and Spektor's music are truly a unique and special moment that captured a small part of music in the 2000’s. Complex but accessible, old but completely something new, at times bubbly-twee-pop with deep and introspective looks at the human condition.
Spektor took her final bow and curtsey as she was met with a long standing ovation of applause. If I’m being honest it was the first encore I’ve seen in some time that truly merited a second encore.
Regina Spektor is still on her 17 date run of tour dates and you can listen to her new album Home, before and after, along with the rest of her music wherever you stream music.