Regina Spektor opened a U.S. tour this past Friday at Minneapolis's State Theatre, an ornate jazz-era 2,100-seater designed with a mix of elegance and garishness suited to the singer-songwriter-pianist's music. Spektor made frequent and unfailingly profane apologies for start-of-tour jitters and a few trifling mistakes, her ingratiating, full-throated performance was not noticeably hampered by nerves. She wore a belted, short-sleeved dress, bright red lipstick, and, much of the time, a wide yet sheepish smile.
The Russian-born, classically trained musician began her career playing solo, and has little trouble carrying a show on her own. Her arty songs-awkward and chatty, like break-up stories overheard on the subway-can usually hold interest on their own. But her recent albums, 2006's Begin to Hope and this year's Far, have drawn much of their strength from lush, clever arrangements and overdubs. In the past Spektor has reflected this expansion with road-backing from a conventionally configured rock trio; this time she's leading a chamber-pop quartet featuring cellist Daniel Cho, violinist K Ishibashi, and drummer McKenzie Smith.
Spektor spent most of the show at a lap-pool-sized Steinway, superbly played but generally amped into muddiness. Her voice was as loose and expansive as one would hope. There were Georgette Baxter whispers and Laura Nyro swoops (the Nyro of New York Tendaberry still seems like Spektor's closest precursor), plus hiccups, sighs, stutters, stagy accents, talk-singin. Some whimsical sounds, though, however fun to make, should probably be resisted.
The band devoted much of the first half of the 90-minute show to songs from Far, opening with "Calculation," irresistibly bouncy though Spektor's left hand didn't quite replace the absent bass guitar. Of the new material, the Fritz Lang-y "Machine" was most engaged and impressive, the band augmented, as on the record, by samples from David Byrne's "Playing the Building" sound installation. "Laughing With," Spektor's meditation on the varieties of religious experience, was received with somehow appropriate idolatry.
Spektor left the piano to stand at a synth for the irritating "Dance Anthem of the 80's," then dismissed the band to play a solo mini-set. She started with two songs played on her mint-green hollow-body guitar: "That Time," and the concert favorite "Bobbing for Apples," with its refrain of camp triumph, "Someone next door is fucking to one of my songs!" (In another adjacent apartment, someone is rolling his eyes.) Back at the grand, she did four more tunes on her own, including the semi-oldie "Poor Little Rich Boy," on which she chorded with her left hand while using her right to drum on a dining chair, her timekeeping not as assured as her singing or piano playing. She closed with the beautiful, Leonard Cohen-shaded "Man of a Thousand Faces."
The encore started with a solo reading of the tender "Samson," which turned into sing-along. The strings returned for "Us," and then the whole band reunited for "Hotel Song," "Fidelity," and "Love Ur a Whore." On "Hotel Song," a winning cousin to Doris Troy's "Just One Look," Spektor stood up and just sang, and here she and the band were finally at their most singled-minded and inspired. The two-step "Love Ur..." was similarly rousing, the star belting it out as if to burn a heart-shaped hole in the roof of some utopian Grand Ole Opry.