Fiona Apple: Lincoln Hall, 3/18/12

Mon Mar 19 2012

It’s probably to Fiona Apple’s benefit that the press paints her as a fragile, volatile headcase; this way, her fans are guaranteed to feel fortunate that she shows up at all to her rare concert appearances. Last night’s Lincoln Hall show was one of only eight scheduled dates on her current tour, and the tour is her first in five years. Fans eager for a sneak preview of her forthcoming album have been rewarded with precious YouTube footage from her SXSW appearance, and these two nights in Chicago (she plays tonight also) are Apple’s only other non-East coast dates at this point. So the mood was noticeably reverent yet equally jubilant as the venue filled up with mostly hardcore fans. No one seemed to know whether there was an opener or not, but around 8:15 a couple guys walked onstage. Singer/guitarist Blake Mills sat down and apologized for being late because he was sick, and promised a very brief set before bringing Fiona onstage. While his voice was clearly hurting, it was effective all the same; his guitar work was phenomenal. His picking style is reminiscent of Willie Nelson, clinging precariously to any actual beat, frequently jarring but deceptively fluid, channeled through the haphazard movement of the soul. The subtleties of his slide work during a breathtaking rendition of the Santo & Johnny classic “Sleep Walk” had the audience completely captivated. The instrumental cover was bookended by a couple of Mills originals, and that was that; house lights up.

When Mills walked back out as part of Fiona’s band, I took this as a very good sign. I hadn’t seen any videos from SXSW, or indeed, any footage of Fiona performing, ever, so all I had was the vague notion that maybe she’d come out with a small chamber-pop combo and stand there looking nervous and emaciated, but that was way off. As soon as she emerged and positioned herself at the mic, she let out a piercing shriek and the band launched into “Fast As You Can”. Whatever I might have anticipated, a tight, aggressive rock band did not factor into the equation, but Apple’s backing quartet was fantastic in this and basically every facet of her various styles, each member showcasing an improvisational flair to rival Fiona’s own jazzy vocal sensibilities. Either the songs themselves are powerful enough to demand impeccable musicianship, or these musicians have rigorously integrated pieces of themselves into the songs.

Fiona didn’t say much; a few words of gratitude, but she was essentially focused on singing, and pounding the keys on a couple songs. She walks a unique path in pop culture with her unlikely mix of mainstream success, indie cred and niche fanaticism, and the eleven-song setlist was spread appropriately between hits, album tracks and three brand new songs. Her voice fluctuated convincingly between ragged anguish, delicate optimism and pensive self-examination with an unbridled honesty that suggests she relives her lyrics with each note. Art is, after all, volatile by nature as it’s being made, and the way Apple takes outlandish risks with her vocal gymnastics (as well as the mutations brought on by the band), fifteen year old songs turn into new creative expressions.

The whole experience forced me to rethink a lot of hang-ups I had about the way this tour unfolded. When this show initially sold out in a blinding flash that crashed Lincoln Hall’s servers, I lamented another clueless pop star denying her fans the opportunity to see her perform; clearly, demand warranted a much larger room. In this case, though, I have to completely retract that opinion, because lacking this intimacy, the ability to watch Fiona’s face clearly and connect with it, you’d miss half the magic. Yes, she’s a mesmerizing performer, but the conflicting emotions in her eyes can’t be an act, unless she’s the second coming of Liz Taylor in addition to being one of the most cultishly adored singer/songwriters of the past two decades. She was a complex mixture of fear and giddiness, tension punctured by laughter, the living embodiment of the extremes in her songs. Priceless: her sheepish/maniacal grin at the self-fulfilled prophecy of “I’m good at being uncomfortable” (“Extraordinary Machine”). Furthermore, Lincoln Hall’s strategy of two additional ticket releases in the week leading up to the show was probably the best possible plan to satisfy the most fans in a difficult situation with such high demand. I’ve never seen the place that packed, but it still wasn’t uncomfortable, and the venue’s strict enforcement of no photos or recording made for a refreshingly respectful crowd and no phones in the air.

For the second consecutive time in this club, I saw a supposed loose-cannon performer just put on a really, really good show. A couple weeks ago, Bradford Cox declared that after he’d played an hour, he’d “punched the clock”; Apple’s performance didn’t last even that long, but nobody was feeling ripped off when it was over. As a presence onstage she is riveting, as a personality she is far more magnetic than I ever expected, and her band brought most of her songs roaring to life in a way that makes the studio versions seem tame. Normally I might feel as though a $40 ticket demands more than 50 minutes of music, but few artists pack that much intensity into 50 minutes. Was it some shocking EVENT relative to the Fiona Apple Media Circus that folks’ll be talking about thirty years from now? No, but it was the kind of unforgettable show that can turn skeptics into believers.

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