Rock: Why Tori makes the fans faint

A SORT OF Bridget Jones gone supernova, Tori Amos has always had relationship damage as her stock in trade. Occasionally, sentimentality will cause her to write a song which would be a fine Eurovision contender. But mostly she pulls off what she does with shimmering bravura, combining virtuoso piano playing with a vocal range that soars from Exorcist growls to whoops which only dogs would be able to hear.

In the past, many people have found Tori's screwed-to-the-cross intensity hard to bear. But in the last two years, she has changed. Bad boyfriends are history since she married sound recordist Mark Hawley, and the cathartic effect shows on her new album, From the Choirgirl Hotel. On Monday at Wolverhampton's Civic Centre, we were expecting the usual lonesome pair of a girl and her piano. But instead, Tori was dressed down in a T- shirt and patchwork skirt and flanked by a band. One hand on the Bosendorfer, the other on her electric organ and roaring into her mike, she ripped into "Black Dove", one of Choirgirl's finest, and what followed sounded as if a dam had burst. With the band providing the basic structure, Tori laid bare the Led Zep in her soul, clawing her fingers erotically up her thighs and singing so frenziedly that skeins of drool hurtled through the limelight.

Most of the set was new, from the self-flagellation of "Spark" and "Playboy Mommy", both about a recent miscarriage, to the bump and grind of "She's Your Cocaine". But some back catalogue surfaced, too: "Cornflake Girl" is a crowd-pleaser. Then Tori dismissed her booming sidekicks for the exquisite "Mother", and you could hear what had been missing - the clarity of the piano and the words, which deal on this song with a young girl on her wedding day, knowing she's making a mistake. During the hushed dread of the line "Mother, the car is here ...", you could hear a pin fall. I could see the glowing cigarette of Tori's new husband as he mulled over this one in the wings.

The band returned for the amped-up "Raspberry Swirl" and the gloriously blood-bolstered "Waitress", a troubled take on female competitiveness: "I believe in peace / I believe in peace, bitch ..." It was an overheated evening in many respects, and several of the crowd fainted, prompting Tori to hand out bottles of water. Though not before insisting: "Share. If you take too much, you're gonna grow warts on your penis - even if you're a girl."

I'm glad she's loosened up so much, but Amos is really more than just a rock chick. If her band gets too heavy, her eloquence could be lost.

They say you either love the Smashing Pumpkins or else you passionately hate them, but I've always been ambivalent. Their power-chord grunge thrash - rooted more in Black Sabbath than the Sex Pistols - hit its peak on 1995's overwrought Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, on which an effort to be profound toppled over into pretentiousness (though the album still sold over seven million copies).

These days, lead vocalist Billy Corgan claims he was being "knowingly self-destructive" back then. The new album, Adore, is a radical rethink, pared down, contemplative, and very slightly weedy. Their tour to promote it consists of one-off dates in venues "never before used as concert venues" - such as the roof of the FNAC shop in Paris and the back of a flatbed truck in Tokyo. For their London appearance, however, they appeared at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, headlining MTV's Five Night Stand.

From the first note, the Pumpkins proved themselves to be more of a live than a studio band. They took the metal blitz of their earlier work and fed it through the maturity of their new ideas to produce a visceral onslaught of terrifying strength. As early as the second number, "Tear", they'd brought the venue to ecstatic chaos.

The Pumpkins are tall: Corgan stands at 6ft 3in. There they stood, black-clad and staring down, with the Edie Sedgewick-style bassist D'Arcy Wretzky wearing glittering devil's horns, second guitarist James Iha coolly impassive, and Corgan, his bald head shining above his leather coat, a bit like a messiah, a bit like a writhing worm.

Ranked behind in viridian shadow, three muscular drummers (making up for the superhuman Jimmy Chamerlin, sacked after a heroin binge) thundered like something at the gates of hell. As cameras snaked and bouncers tossed aside desperate acolytes, the sound grew to a storm that broke in waves above our heads.

Audible lyrics weren't the issue, but Corgan's sneering whine fitted perfectly into an evening which seemed somehow post-apocalyptic. Every number had the same dark panache: the art-terrorist distortion of a rebuilt "Bullet with Butterfly Wings", the sorrowing "Crestfallen" or the seven- minute-long "For Martha", which moved from high-plains harmonies to industrial feedback. As a depraved final touch, Simon Le Bon put in a guest appearance.

More guest appearances - this time Jason Pierce from Spiritualized - were promised for Dr John's show at the Barbican. But Pierce was indisposed. Along with members of Supergrass and Portishead, Pierce turns up on the Doctor's new album, Anutha Zone, which shows the king of bayou psychedelia back on spooky juju form. But Sunday's show was a bit of a disappointment.

The stage was warmed, but barely, by the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, who bellowed so loudly down their trombones, you felt you'd had an ear-syringe from a bovine inseminator. When Dr John appeared, he was joined by a couple of guitarists who flattened his piano and gruff voice with dull Brecker Brothers chunk-ker-chunk.

Dr John is 56, but looks 90. He's not as fragile as he looks, though, as his rolling keyboard work on "Professor Longhair's Tipitina" showed. "John Gris" was the only other number that sweated; amid marimbas and the ghostly owl-hoots of pan pipes, the man got up, leaning on a carved walking stick, to shuffledance and hiss his black-magic Creole words.

Dr John used to sing "Walk on Gilded Splinters" beside snake-dancing voodoo queens. And he could have done that still, given the right accompaniment. But sadly, he wasn't offered it at this gig.

Tori Amos: Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), Tues & Wed.

Nicholas Barber returns next week.