“This is how riots start,” Regina Spektor laughed. This is probably an overstatement of her effect on campus arts dialogue (or not a statement at all- she was actually talking about mic difficulties), but some tension did surround her set. Logistical problems, eg rain, conspired to keep people away from this year’s event, and for a while it looked like the gym would remain mostly empty, but by the time Spektor took the stage, the make-shift venue seemed to be packed pretty tight. Opening with an a capella “Ain’t No Cover,” Spektor transfixed the audience from the start, entertaining newcomers to her music and coming through for the legions of devotees who mouthed her words back to her the entire time. Any previous problems simply melted away.
After her breathy opener, Spektor moved to the piano set in the middle of the stage and went to work. Watching her pound away was a revelation, especially contrasted with seeing her pluck the guitar for two songs later in the set. The two guitar songs-“Bobbing for Apples” and “That Time”-came off great, but Spektor seemed a bit ill at ease with the stringed instrument, whereas she seemed to become one with the piano, blurring the lines between hands and keys, mind and hands.
“On the Radio,” from her most recent record Begin to Hope, was an early highlight, all lilt and heartbreak, but it was when she reached her more idiosyncratic material that she really shone. One of Spektor’s more fantastic qualities is her ability to bring novelty to every word-hell, to every phoneme. She’s sung these songs a million times before, but one still gets the sense that she’s singing everything for the first time, somehow channeling her modernist refrigerator poetry lyrics from across the gap. “The Ghost of Corporate Future” embodied this spirit perfectly, as Spektor almost seemed not to be breathing as she rushed out words about potential apocalypses and frozen foods, giving equal weight to both.
Unlike her show at 9:30 Club this past fall, Spektor didn’t have a band in tow Saturday, and the decision paid dividends. While a full band might flesh out certain songs, there’s a certain beauty to the sparseness of her compositions, a beauty that gets smothered with drum fills and stringed crescendos. No, all that was needed was a piano and that voice, that voice that trips over syllables and darts back and forth through ululations and tics and hiccups toward glory. She closed with the tragically gorgeous “Samson” before coming back to rapturous applause to encore with Beatles rarity “Real Love.” Whispered wonders about what the song was filled the Smith Center for a few minutes after she left, but the questions faded out, subdued by smiles and so much afterglow. It was raining outside, and the crowd made it kind of hard to get out, but none of that mattered much with twinkling piano and dulcet tones still ringing in one’s ears.