If I was going to sum up Fiona Apple’s concert Friday night with one word, that word would be intense.
I’m not the world’s biggest Fiona Apple fan; I was an avid listener of her debut album Tidal, as it played right into the angst and rage-lite that I think most girls are attracted to in their teens. I was particularly fond of her song “Criminal,” which turned out to be her most mainstream success. Apple is not a particularly prolific artist – she’s only released four albums in sixteen years – and somewhere along the way I didn’t pay as much attention to her. My interest in music tends to fluctuate and she just kind of fell of my radar a bit. I usually only knew that a new album was coming out because they always had such weird and long names. The full name of her second album was:
When the pawn hits the conflicts he thinks like a king
What he knows throws the blows when he goes to the fight
And he’ll win the whole thing ‘fore he enters the ring
There’s no body to batter when your mind is your might
So when you go solo, you hold your own hand
And remember that depth is the greatest of heights
And if you know where you stand, then you know where to land
And if you fall it won’t matter, cuz you’ll know that you’re right
which is not exactly the action of a person aiming for commercial success or who is the poster child for stability. I still enjoyed her music when I heard it, but I didn’t listen to her newer material in the most timely of manner.
However, I’ve been making more of an effort this year to keep up on music, so when her latest album, the succinctly titled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, was released and received critical acclaim, I was on top of it. It reminded me how much I enjoyed her music and it encouraged me to seek out her previous work and re-familiarize myself with it. I reconnected with it immediately and could once again appreciate how much of her soul is bared in these songs. Apple also did some publicity for the new album and I had forgotten just how odd she can be. You get the feeling that there is a lot of anguish in Apple just below the surface and you are not quite sure when it will come bubbling out. Her appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was just odd enough that I thought that this was a person I wanted to see live.
I figured the show could go one of three ways: it would be a straight forward concert; she would be erratic and odd and possibly have a breakdown (wouldn’t be the first time); or she would cancel and I’d get my money back. It was a win-win-win. Whatever happened, it would be an event. So when she rolled into town, I made sure I got tickets. I walked in fairly unsure of what I was about to experience.
The show wound up falling into the straightforward concert category, but it was one of the most surreal and mesmerizing experiences I’ve had at a show. Fiona Apple is like one giant raw exposed nerve and seems to feel every bit of pain that is in her songs as she sings it. This is not a person phoning it in; she was a true artist (rather than just a performer) and it was extremely intimate show as the audience felt like they were watching someone work out some issues on stage.
Apple was so engrossed in her performance that I’m not even 100% sure that she remembered that there even was an audience watching her unpack some baggage. She rarely made any eye contact with the audience, mostly keeping her gaze lowered through her set. She barely acknowledged us throughout the duration of the show; other than one moment when she apologized for taking a moment to adjust her clothing, the only words that she said to us were her final words as she walked off stage at the end of the show: “I love you. Goodnight.” I was fine with that – if you go to enough concerts, you tire of the inane patter that many performers feel obligated to indulge in. Apple is not a “Good evening, Albany!” type of person to begin with and she more than expressed herself through her music.
From the first song, we felt like we were on a journey with Apple, even if we weren’t active participants. Apple has such a frail appearance – she helped usher in the “heroin chic” look in the nineties – that at times you worry that she is too fragile to endure the weight of the emotions that she experiences on stage. There were a few times that I thought that Apple was on the verge of a nervous breakdown – on more than one occasion, she rocked her body in a way a child would right before they throw a tantrum – but the breakdown never came. Her behavior did not detract from the show at all; rather, it heightened the evening. The lyrics and the music managed to resonate more, at least with me, by seeing a physical personification of them up on stage. I left the show a little exhausted, despite the fact I had been sitting down for over an hour. Apple was our proxy, through whom we could experience some of the agony from a safe distance. She took the brunt of the pain to spare us.
The night wasn’t all gloom and doom, however; there were some songs that were much more playful in tempo if not necessarily in subject matter. My favorite song of the evening was “Extraordinary Machine,” which is reminiscent of the musical stylings of a different era. Another reviewer called it vaudevillian and that seemed accurate. It was fun and served as a nice break from the heavier moments of the night. Other songs, such as “Paper Bag,” provided refuge through the evening as necessary; Apple seemed to know just how much the audience (and she) could endure before she would mix it up a bit. She closed the show (no encore) with a beautiful rendition of the Conway Twitty song “It’s Only Make Believe.” I was in no way disappointed in the lack of an encore or her decision not to play “Criminal.” I left the show fully content and even more determined to spend more time listening to her music.
Some other quick thoughts:
- This was not a concert where there was a lot of dancing, but for some inexplicable reason during her rendition of “Sleep to Dream,” a number of middle aged men jumped up throughout the audience and started rocking out. I have no idea why this happened – as soon as the song was over, they sat down and never got up again. Is “Sleep to Dream” some sort of secret anthem for men in their late thirties/early forties that I didn’t know about? Of everything that happened Friday, that was the most surreal moment.
- In a weird twist of fate and totally uncoordinated, the only other two people that I knew going to the show were seated directly in front and in back of me. The Palace isn’t a huge theater, but still – it was a very weird coincidence.
- I don’t know why this cracked me up so much, but sitting on top of Fiona’s piano was a red plastic Fisher Price apple toy that I think I had as a kid ( you can kind of see it in this photo)
Just seemed kind of out of place during such a heavy, emotionally draining show.
- I have no idea what Apple was wearing during the show or what her wardrobe issue was. I couldn’t even tell if she was wearing short or a skirt (I’m guessing the latter) and she kept pulling on it like it had ripped or something.
- Her band was her opening act and I quite liked her guitarist Blake Mills, who sang lead vocals. He sounded a little like Chris Isaak , who I enjoy, and he did a series of original songs as well as covers. I’ll be looking for some more of his stuff.
- I was surprised that this show wasn’t even close to a sell out – there were a lot of empty seats on the floor.
Fiona Apple was one of the better shows that I’ve been to in a while; though you felt like you had been put through the wringer a bit, it was a powerful evening. If Fiona Apple comes to town, I’d strongly recommend going to see her. I’d rather see someone who is tortured by their music that someone who seemingly has no emotional connection to what they are singing. These songs obviously meant something to Apple and now they mean something more to me.
Fast As You Can
On the Bound
Anything We Want
Sleep to Dream
Not About Love
Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
It’s Only Make Believe