Fiona Apple, Blake Mills
Better than . . . getting knocked out by shadows.
There's something about Fiona Apple that makes you want to take care of her. Maybe it's because she's so slender, you assume she must be frail. Perhaps it's because of her notorious power struggles with her record company and the music industry in general, or that so many of the singer-pianist's songs deal with the ravages of romantic despair.
She apparently has a major case of stage fright. At Apple's concert at the Hollywood Palladium in July — on her first major tour in seven years — she came out 20 minutes late, apologizing to the crowd that she'd been nervous. Last night's show at the Greek Theatre also ran a little behind, but that was because the venue staff wanted to give fans more time to arrive due to a brush fire near the Getty Center that was delaying traffic across the city.
As at the Palladium, Apple's guitarist Blake Mills opened with a set of laidback country-folk songs. He and Apple shared bands in July, but Friday night he was mainly backed by Apple sideman Sebastian Steinberg on upright bass. Later, Mills would tear out several really fiery, dazzling solos during Apple's show, but his guitar playing was more restrained during his own set, and his vocals were similarly low key and restfully unhurried.
Mills noted the irony about singing a cottony and loping tune with a title like “Half Asleep” when he was supposed to be getting the audience fired up, but much of the late-arriving crowd appreciated his quietly artful guitar enchantments, especially on a languidly dreamy, set-ending cover of Santo & Johnny's classic instrumental “Sleep Walk.” Employing his slide so that it sounded like a pedal steel, Mills stayed mostly true to the original, with its sublime ghostly-weepy shimmers, although Apple's keyboardist Zac Rae jazzed it up nicely when he came out to spin a madly groovy Jimmy Smith-style organ solo.
You want to take care of Fiona Apple, but maybe she doesn't need any help. She's tougher than she looks, “an extraordinary machine” as she proudly declared halfway through the show. When she made her entrance, stalking restlessly around the stage and urging her attentive four-piece band along on “Fast as You Can,” Apple looked fierce and determined, even in a summery sleeveless pinkish-orange gown. The decisive way the native New Yorker and longtime Angeleno pounded her poor piano on the ensuing “On the Bound” and “Shadowboxer” was anything but wimpy.
Apple might have stage fright, but she was relaxed enough to say daft, spontaneous things to the near-capacity crowd, as when she complimented a distant fan who was walking up a staircase to the terrace bleachers, telling her that she had a great silhouette. For all of Apple's outer aplomb, though, she seemed genuinely touched and even surprised when the audience sang a full version of “Happy Birthday” in honor of her birthday on Thursday.
There wasn't any noticeable stage fright in Fiona Apple McAfee Maggart's singing, which moved easily from a honeyed melodiousness to stark, soul-scouring howls. Another early highlight was “Anything We Want,” from her new album (take a deep breath), The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. That's the song she memorably debuted with the Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in June. “Anything” is just a little too slow to dance crazy to, but the arrangement is insidiously funky, with the clang-bang metallic percussion adding an oddly poignant clockwork counterpoint to the narrator's vulnerably hopeful romantic entreaties.
Apple mixed up the set list a little last night, playing a total of six songs from The Idler Wheel, adding two key tracks that she and the band didn't get around to at the Palladium, “Periphery” and “Left Alone.” With Zac Rae's playful yet firmly resolute bottom-end piano rolls and drummer Amy Wood's seemingly psychic accents, “Periphery” carried on with a jauntily rollicking foundation, giving Apple an anchor to hold on to as her airy singing spiraled ever higher in pitch, dancing teasingly in the spaces between Rae's rolling chords. “Left Alone” was more sinister and darkly hilarious, with Apple calling herself “a moribund slut” and sounding more than a little sweetly insane when she cooed defiantly, “Tears calcify in my tummy.”
“Sleep to Dream,” from her 1996 debut album, Tidal, went from funky to freaky, culminating in a psychedelic post-punk jam, with Mills' guitar wailing and bending ever stranger while Rae's new-wave synthesizer headed into outer space. Mills coated tonight's rendition of Apple's rubber-limbed “Extraordinary Machine” with a new sheen of hi-lonesome, empty-desert-highway slide while Rae's keyboards sounded like a carnival accordion. The singer appeared so happy on “Machine” that she kept literally kicking up her red heels with joy.
“Werewolf” might have been the highlight last night, though. With its spare, pretty piano-&-vocal intro, the ballad was disarmingly sad, as Apple lamented the end of an impossible relationship (“But we can still support each other/All we gotta do's avoid each other”). The melody said she was in love, but the lyrics just wouldn't listen. When Apple sang consolingly, “Nothing wrong when/a song ends/in a minor key” — boxy sound-effect cheers clashing with her swirling, softening mantra — it was inescapably moving and even more piercingly heartfelt and pure than the night's other confessional exorcisms.
The singer and the band brought it down real low for the intimate ballad “I Know,” her resignation (“I'm your crowbar/If that's what I am so far”) painted delicately by a celestial-blue synth. Apple drew excited squeals from fans when she dramatically extended the final pause several long, deep breaths, before looking back at Wood and slamming the lid down together.
Despite its dour parenthetical title, “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)” was almost ska-like, bouncy and perky, until it downshifted into another mellow Mills-flecked groove that became so quiet, the cackling and intently gossiping voices of several loud women in the restrooms under the stands floated out unwittingly and absurdly into the carefully rendered silence. Drummer Wood swung the mood again with more deft dynamics, the fragile spell buried in a pile of punked-out hard-rock collisions.
Apart from all of the trippy, octopus-garden imagery of the new single “Every Single Night,” Apple was most heart-catching when she reduced her voice to a simple, tremulous prayer, “I just want to feel everything,” dividing each syllable with breathy reverence.
“Before I forget … I lost my phone,” she explained between songs to any potential (famous?) friends who might have been in the audience last night and had been trying to get in touch with her. After the official set closed with the one-two punch of “Daredevil” and an emphatically furious “Not in Love,” Apple announced that they'd play an encore without actually wasting time by leaving the stage and making a show of returning.
“It's really pretty here, and you sure are wonderful,” Apple concluded, before extinguishing the night as she did at the Palladium with a gently cradled version of Conway Twitty's “It's Only Make Believe.” As the audience dried its tears, the singer grabbed something from the top of her big black piano and dashed off into the wings, hopping and skipping merrily as the darkness swallowed her up.
Personal bias: I was really hoping that Apple would play the compulsively catchy rapid-fire, call-&-response new song “Hot Knife.” But I'm not sure that manic weave of voices can even be performed live.
Overheard in the crowd: Girl No. 1, between songs: “I love you, Fiona!!” (a familiar refrain throughout the evening). Girl No. 2, a beat later but with an air of desperation: “I love you more!”
Random notebook dump: People sure get wasted at Fiona Apple concerts, like the young woman slumped passed out afterward against the base of a palm tree in the parking lot. Moments later, something kicked in, and she was up on her feet and prancing merrily in circles with grand, flowing gestures as if she were at the Renaissance Faire. Nearby, her friends danced on the hood of their cars. Nobody dances on their cars anymore.
Set list below.
1. Fast as You Can
2. On the Bound
4. Paper Bag
5. Anything We Want
6. Get Gone
8. Sleep to Dream
9. Extraordinary Machine
11. Left Alone
12. I Know
13. Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
14. Every Single Night
16. Not About Love
17. It's Only Make Believe (encore; Conway Twitty cover)